It’s surprising, considering his bona fides — not to mention the A-list guests on this album — that 21 Savage is not yet a household name. An East Atlanta rapper-producer with a laconically flat-lining baritone voice and a whispery liquidly flow, he’s spent the last three years since his 2015 mixtape “The Slaughter Tape,” dropping top-tier features with Drake (“Sneakin’”), Post Malone (“Rockstar”) and Metro Boomin (“X,” “Don’t Come Out The House”), not to mention his own detuned, synth-plinking hit, “Bank Account.” His lyrics are smart, thought-provoking and usually humorous.
“i am > i was” should change that, in the same fashion that 2018 saw Travis Scott and Pusha T pushing into platinum status with just a few melodic tweaks to their usual formulas — and along for the ride are Childish Gambino, Post Malone, Offset, J Cole, Schoolboy Q and others.
Unlike his grim, trap-heavy major-label debut, 2017’s “Issa Album,” here 21 Savage finds charm to be as much of a weapon as sullen bleakness or sudden violence. Rather than stick on the trap track, he finds swerving R&B grooves and melodies that are equally durable.
“How many Pradas you got?…. How many lawyers you got?… How many times you got shot?” are among the questions he asks, wryly, on the DJ Dahl-produced “A Lot.” Even though that particular track is generating buzz due to its J. Cole feature (about the recently incarcerated Tekashi 6ix9ine: “Pray for Tekashi, they want him to rot/ I picture him inside the cell on a cot/ Reflectin’ on how he made it to the top/ Wonderin’ if it was worth it or not”), “A Lot” swims on its own soulful merits and sniper-precise raps when it comes to taking on personal growth tips and picking on troublesome women. He reunites with Metro Boomin’ on “Break Da Law,” in which he nails fellow rappers with a gutsy, guttural challenge: “Don’t you cross the gang dawg, we like barb wire.”
Slowing things down a bit, on “All My Friends,” Savage works a moody melody until Post Malone jumps in with a killer hook and some hard truths about losing friends to “counting bands” and “chasing money.” And the Childish Gambino guest spot on “Monster” is closer to the hard-rapping Glover of his past albums rather than his “This is America”-style smokiness – a cockiness that 21 Savage matches while talking about staying true to his initial values.
But despite all the high-profile guests, it’s actually on the soulfully inventive “Ball w/o You,” “Gun Smoke” and the sensual “Out for the Night” — which all feature 21 Savage on his own — that “i am > i was” is at its best and most dynamic.