Though it lacks the cohesiveness of "Savage Mode," "Issa Album" is a strong debut for 21 Savage.
Savage Mode felt like a historic moment for Atlanta, a city in which the hungriest of rookies can deliver more memorable works than the seasoned pros. After an inspiring run of hits with the likes of Drake, Future, and Kanye West, Metro Boomin decided to hole up in Zone 6 and cultivate the talents of the frail and fearsome 21 Savage. With Savage Mode, the rapper-producer duo created a unique sound that reinvigorated trap music with a newfound sense of terror. Metro’s prestige quickly heightened, and the success of the joint project presented 21 with a veritable shot at rap stardom.
With his debut album, Issa Album, 21 intends to prove himself as a worthy competitor among rap’s elite and not just a one-trick supervillain. After a haunting trip through the numbed psyche of a jaded killer, 21 ended Savage Mode with a glimpse of light -- a feeling of hope. Issa Album picks up where “Ocean Drive” left off. He has begun to realize his escape from his past life and its ruthless confines.
The opening track, “Famous,” begins with a serene melody of treble notes, likely clinked by Zaytoven. Zay’s familiar beat tag is followed by that of Metro, who contributes to eight of Issa’s 14 tracks. 21 takes on the opening verse -- an inspired synopsis of his “rags to riches” journey -- with more emotion and urgency than anything on Savage Mode. “I’m a rapper, n*gga, and I’m gangbangin’,” he raps on the chorus. No one expected him to shed his gang ties, but it is telling that he’s explicitly accepted his livelihood as a rapper.
And if rapping wasn’t enough, Issa also sees 21 make his debut as a producer, as the sole man credited on the second track, “Bank Account,” which occupies the slot where “No Heart” sat on Savage Mode. “Bank Account” and the two tracks that follow, “Close My Eyes” and “Bad Business,” are three of the album’s strongest. He blends the concise, quotable one-liners of Savage Mode with the high adrenaline flows heard on The Slaughter Tape and Slaughter King, the pair of 2015 mixtapes that burst him onto the Atlanta trap scene.
Issa's mood suddenly lightens on “Thug Life,” which comes with a dreamy trap soul beat from Metro -- an example of the “Mask Off” producer’s underrated sampling abilities. 21 becomes introspective without swaying from his offhand delivery. The following song, “FaceTime,” boasts another blissful production -- a minimal effort from DJ Mustard. 21 attempts an outright singing flow for most of the track. He’s able to convey real romance, though his courtship involves little more than getting drunk all weekend.
Next comes the most pivotal song on the album. At first, “Nothin New,” produced by Metro and Zaytoven, plays as a response to those critics who see 21 as a one-dimensional character (“They thought I only rapped about murder and pistols”). But the song soon becomes much more -- a harrowing portrait of the environment he was born into.
“Numb the pain with the money,” he repeats about 20 times on the hook of the following track, aptly titled “Numb.” Though “Numb” is an important part of Issa’s overall narrative, the hook serves as a sign of imminent redundancy. The latter half of Issa is not without its moments, but ultimately, the productions are far more memorable than 21’s lyrical efforts. “Numb” and “Money Convo” could prove to be solid club records on their own, though they pale in comparison to the songs that kicked off the album.
“Special” is another slow jam that will get little replay upon repeat Issa visits. Still, the song is evidence that 21 is making bold strides in trying to cover all of the genres that are expected to be within the repertoires of Atlanta's top artists. Seeing that he's not even three years into his career -- and knowing how guarded he is -- his willingness to express himself romantically is ultimately endearing and a promising sign for his future.
Peculiarly, 21 concludes his debut album with “7 Min Freestyle.” Perhaps the feat of endurance is supposed to confirm that he has all the requisite skills of a “real rapper,” even if that means freestyling for an exorbitant amount of time. It’s not a particularly memorable finale, but there are many times when he hits an impressive stride, as he's backed by an extra grimy instrumental from Southside and (lo and behold) Young Metro. Even when he falters a few times after the six-minute mark, the listener can still feel his focus. He’s not taking rap lightly; he’s a savage in the booth.
“I make savage music, n*gga this is not hip-hop,” 21 rapped on “Hunnid on the Drop,” a booming Red Bull-curated collaboration with New Zealand producer Montell2099 that dropped a week before Issa. “Savage music” -- that’s what got him here. But Issa shows he can do both. “Thug Life” and “Nothin New” -- especially the incredible second verse on the latter track -- are as hip-hop as anything else that has come out this year. Narrow in scope but perfect in its execution, Savage Mode was a remarkably cohesive project. Issa doesn’t have the same front-to-back listening value, but it still contains a bounty of riveting tracks that 21 couldn’t have made a year ago.