21 Savage’s growth wasn’t overnight. It happened more as a slow beed, fueled by outside forces that he may or may not have been able to control, but that’s what life is. 21 Savage knows he’s grown. He titled his new album i am greater than i was, so, clearly, he knows. The album isn’t only this sort of “full circle” moment for 21, it’s an act of clarity for fans, and it can even act as inspiration and motivation if you choose to let it. This is because we can all be greater than what we were, a day ago, a week ago, five years ago-- that’s the end goal, isn’t it? We never want to move backwards, we never want to use the “less than” symbol when speaking of self. Even at the most surface level, not digging past the album’s straightforward title, there’s something to be gleaned about the importance of growth.

We are going to dig a little past the album title, though. 2018 has been a relatively quiet year for the 26-year old rapper. He’s not an ardent tweeter, nor does he have a tendency to flood our Instagram feed with crystallized posts of his jewelry or all his #dawgs. His well-documented romance with Amber Rose came to a halt at the top of the new year, leaving his name bereft of the media’s gossip cycle. Issa Album left most 21 fans, if not all, with a looming question mark: where are we going? The album, while it contained a bright spot here and there (“7 Min Freestyle,” “Bank Account”), was above all, confused. Looking back, this confusion could be a direct reflection of 21’s personal uncertainty. A simple fumbling, while he still learned the ropes of the rap game, of what it means to be a “rapper,” after being “a dude from the streets who started to rap.”

That process goes beyond figuring out what music to make and who to make it with. It’s learning how to do an interview; something 21 has quite obviously improved upon. It’s learning what your own boundaries are; we know, for example, not to expect certain tabloid-laden behavior from a J. Cole, whereas, from a Tekashi, we eat it up. Each artist has set their own specific set of boundaries for where, and how, they let fans and the media at large in. It’s learning about yourself; this is true of any new job or role you take on, and much more broadly, life in general. To put it plainly, you don’t know yourself that well in your early 20s. You might be in your early 20s right now, reading this, thinking that you do, but by the time you hit 27, that will change. 21 is in that precise situation right now, at 26-years old, he’s hitting that benchmark for growth, when your perception of yourself and the world around begins to change, typically, moving into a place that is more aware.

He talks about this on his recent interview with the Breakfast Club, the realization that his rap career is a gift, something he needs to take seriously, which he admits he wasn’t doing at first. “At first, I ain’t really know what it was gunna be,” he tells Charlamagne tha God. “But once I seen what it could, and what I could do with it, and I sat back and thought about all the shit I been through in my life, I just was like, man, I gotta do whatever I can do to just do my best with it, cause it’s like a gift, for real.”

This realization alone could have been enough of a spark for the maturation of 21 Savage. In fact, just the process of sitting back and reflecting on life is an act in to inspire evolution. However, there is more to the story. 21 blew up with Savage Mode, at the time only a couple of years deep into creating music. We saw the raw talent, we loved it, and we weren’t wrong in so doing. The talent may have been dissuaded this way or that way since, we may have been worried for a second, but he’s made a concerted effort to go above and beyond in 2018, despite releasing a limited amount of music. His featured spots were small easter eggs that something was happening, that there was forward movement. He tried out new flows, he got weird, he got funny, he gave us ad-libs. Now, it seems like after a year of perfecting his craft and honing in on it by way of other people’s projects (is it less pressure that way?), everything has come to a head.

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His growth is reflected in his production choices (“a lot”), in his openness on wax (“letter 2 my momma”), in his bleak honesty and acknowledgment of self in interviews (“sometimes late nights I just cry, like a muthafucka,” he revealed during that same insightful Breakfast Club interview).

To talk about 21’s growth, then, we need to discuss the music alongside the person. It’s hard to imagine the Savage Mode era 21 talking with Charlamagne Tha God about shedding tears to cope with his pain, or about admitting to having tried therapy. These are all grown-up things, and he’s only able to share these things now because he’s lived a bit more: he’s had a very public relationship, he’s experienced fame, fortune, criticism and all. Lest we forget, his experiences prior to “fame and fortune” weren’t sunshine and butterflies. In light of a haggered past, it’s easy to be even more appreciative of the good things, and for 21, the good things are looking pretty damn good. He’s clearly in an appreciative place for everything his rap career has granted him thus far, even with the learning curve and the unwanted attention that comes with it. It’s with this mindset that 21 would be able to create i am > i was, and make us believe it, too.