21 Savage's self-expression through singing denotes the duplicity of hip-hop and the evolution of the "gangster" rapper.
In November of 2019, artist 21 Savage spoke to hundreds of Atlanta students about the dangers of gun violence. The speech was part of Fulton county’s “Guns Down, Heads Up” program. An initiative to curtail the rising number of illegal firearms in the community. During a local news feature, he explained that urging area youth to be wise in not resorting to guns was his mission. However, his single “Immortal” which was released just 20 days prior had a different message. “Brand new Mac-90 with the drum attached, you a shit talker we got drums for that. Tryna fist fight boy you dumb for that. You gone catch a bullet in yo long for that.”
Can a hardcore rapper grow as a person, as a man, as a member of his community - yet still let his music promote the darkness of his past?
What happens when a man with a troubled past embraces his mortality and refuses to wallow in the same mentality that resulted in the very pain he once sought to escape?
Is society receptive to the duality of a black man finding the silver lining in his suffering, dealing with the convolution and weight of surviving life in the hood?
If you never cared to learn more about 21 Savage you may have these and other questions. Yet, given the effort, you’d quickly find that the man behind the microphone is more complex than can be understood simply by taking his music at face value. It requires a fair analysis of the environment in which he was born. The environment he references in music. Through his words, though sometimes corrupt, Savage has constructed a platform. In the 27-year old’s maturation, he continues to use that platform to make a change, perhaps the only way he knows how. This while still healing from a past that likely haunts him.
Patrisse Cullors, Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter presents 21 Savage with an award at the NILC Courageous Luminaires Awards, October 2019 - Jerritt Clark/Getty Images for NILC
In an interview with Genius, 21 Savage said, “Words are powerful. You have to be mindful of how you use them. I’m a rapper, so yeah, I’m going to rap about certain shit - but that’s entertainment. That’s music. That’s my past life. When it comes to what I’m doing in these streets as like a man. Fuck a rapper. Just me as a man and what I stand for, don’t throw dirt on that because that’s like a big accomplishment.”
21 Savage leaped onto hip-hop’s proverbial stage, the light finally shimmering on a sound once dimly lit in almost hidden crevices of SoundCloud. If The Slaughter Tape catapulted Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph onto that stage his soon-to-follow EP Savage Mode was the crowd surfing frog splash off of it. The hip-hop community had embraced him. Each project he’s released since has pitted him deeper and deeper into the modern-day pop-culture lexicon. The Slaughter Tape featured a hardcore, gritty production style, heavily fleeced with 808s and a dark ominous undertone. Listening to the early Savage catalog feels like you’re walking into the belly of the slums. His menacing voice and catchy ad-libs rattle your eardrums from start to finish as he uniquely tells his story.
Back in the early days of his emergence, 21 Savage was lauded for his hardcore street, oftentimes violence ladened lyrics. Praising the gang lifestyle and endorsing problematic behavior. Behavior young men feel forced into because of the realities of living in a socioeconomically challenged neighborhood. As time fell through the hourglass on 21 Savage’s career, his tune has started to shift. Both in his outward demeanor and in his music. Perhaps it even softened.
On his most recent album, I am > I was, he goes in-depth about the tumultuous relationship with his father, losing loved ones and the pain of heartbreak. As the title would suggest Savage’s second studio album signifies a turning point in his life. Seeking to be a better artist and a better man than he once was. For his endeavors in proliferation the rapper was rewarded with a Grammy nomination for Rap Album of the Year.
“I just feel like I’m becoming a better person. My music is just getting better. Learning the game better, learning how to move, learning how to create - everything’s just growing.”
“I might rap about a lot of stuff, but that’s just a reflection about what I’ve been through. But in real life, everything I do is positive.”
For someone who has been through so much, it’s great to see a man able to freely express himself. His ups and downs. Both his unrestrained joy and his pain. On a 2018 Breakfast Club interview, Savage admitted that “sometimes he cries” when reflecting on the passing of a friend. DJ Envy followed his statement up by saying “the fact that you said you cry is good because a lot of people will never admit that they cry.” The Atlanta-raised rapper then says “That Jeezy and Keisha Cole song, "Dreaming," I don’t care where I’m at if that song comes on I’m going to cry.”
It was here that we realized 21 Savage, like many of us, uses music to mend emotional scars - which would explain his love affair with singing R&B. Music often acts as an emotional ointment, just as 21 Savaged described in this interview. It helps us to process our traumas. For black people, music is sometimes the only therapy we ever had. In many cases, it is the only way we were able to process the things we went through. Have you ever been to a party or a gathering and that classic R&B song plays that calls up so many emotions? We, as African-Americans, don’t simply experience music - we escape into it. Losing ourselves in the words and the melody. Hoping for a momentary fix from reality. For black men, we deserve the chance to be free of the stereotypes that chain us to a nonexpressive mascot-like existence.
21 Savage at his "Hot Boyz" Birthday Bash, October 2019 - Carmen Mandato/Getty Images
In the same interview, Savage admitted that he had been to therapy. Imagine a 90’s gangster rapper talking about therapy in a radio interview. As we’ve become a more conscious and progressive community in hip-hop, much of the facade has melted away and we accept these men as human beings who have experienced real things that take a toll on them - not these beacons of hyper-masculinity. We see evidence of this in today’s “gangster rapper.”
Savage speaks on this candidly in his writings:
“I done did a lot in these streets and that’s facts. PTSD like I came from Iraq.”
“I lost all my friends countin' bands in the Bentley coupe
Diamonds on me doin' handstands, Rosé on my tooth
If she wanna dance, let her dance for the money, ooh
I don't need no friends if you really wanna know the truth.”
In the Summer of 2018 Savage began frequently posting himself singing on Instagram’s Story feature. He sang everything from The Weeknd to R. Kelly to SWV. Bellowing his heart out. The selection a testament to his wide range of musical tastes. This past Summer the rapper claimed “I’m singing R&B this time on tour,” in an Instagram post. Savage stated that singing clears his mind. So, these internet karaoke sessions may be part medicine, part liberation. Signs of his internal cultivation.
Men are freer now to express themselves. To be open with their feelings and show a softer side. 21 Savage is an example of this. We as a society have moved toward allowing men the opportunity to be human. To be tender and vulnerable creatures, while still endorsing their masculinity. Breaking down the barriers of masculinity has been tougher than knocking down the Berlin Wall within the tribe of hip-hop. Misconceptions of male identity have long contributed to a hyper-aggressive culture of male behavior. Many times men are incredibly pensive because they’re asked by society to partake in this play where their role is merely the beast. 21 Savage's exterior may present a hardcore gangster rapper. Now we’re seeing a softer side of Savage. Growth is the companion of time and 21 Savage isn’t the same person that scrapped and crawled his way out of the trenches. He’s a greater version of that.
21 Savage’s journey exemplifies the dichotomy that exists in rap. He wants desperately to help his community and his actions show that. But his music is still filled with violence and belligerence. The Grammy nominee’s infatuation with R&B is a sign that he’s torn about the content in his music. On one hand, it propelled him to stardom, on the other hand, it goes against the things he seems to stand for. But the stories in his music make up who he is. Without the horrors of his past, Savage may not be here to share the journey.
Savage takes his fandom of R&B to the next level by more frequently singing on his music, too. Issa Album explored this on tracks "Facetime" and "Special." In "Special," thanks to auto-tuning, he gifts us with a silky vocal arrangement. On his 2019 album, I am > I was, 21 Savage had a few tracks on which he sings in a contemporary R&B style. He later hopped on several prominent R&B remixes; Jhene Aiko's "Triggered," a song in November with Alicia Keys and Miguel titled "Show Me Love," as well as Normani's "Motivation." There may be more of an audience for 21 Savage ballads than there were for former generations of gangster rap. In what many call the golden era of hip-hop, for two decades, gangster rappers really carried the genre. But I would argue, few of the most influential artists in the past 10 years have been hardcore rap artists. Gangster rappers have had to evolve and adjust with the times in order to survive.
21 Savage isn't alone either. Other rappers known for abrasive style and content like NBA YoungBoy and Kodak Black are showing their more vulnerable sides nowadays. Last year Kodak released HeartBreak Kodak, a project filled with songs of love's enmity. HipHopDX called the album "808s & Heartbreak meets the trap." Needless to say, it was heavily R&B influenced. NBA YoungBoy made waves with his release of "Dirty Iyanna," Michael Jackon’s "Dirty Diana" reimagined. The track features YoungBoy singing feverishly in auto-tune under the iconic baseline. Social changes and advancements in technology have made creatives that never would’ve sung in generations past empowered to give it a shot.
21 Savage gives out a plate of food during his YMCA Thanksgiving Dinner, November 2019 - Prince Williams/Wireimage/Getty Images
It's a proverb of the duplicity that exists in hip-hop and the evolution of the "gangster" rapper. Savage has several different community initiatives where he focuses on giving back. From hosting charity dinners to giving away school supplies in his old neighborhood. After his run-in with ICE and threat of deportation, Savage is now even advocating for immigrant children. It also highlights the line between art and reality. To quote 21 Savage one final time, “This is art, so how the fuck you gone tell me how to express myself - it ain’t no right or wrong way to be a hip-hop artist.”'