With unorthodox trap beats, energetic flows and multiple appearances by iconic actor Morgan Freeman, 21 Savage’s most recent horror-tinged collaboration with producer Metro Boomin proves to be a valuable entry into the star rapper’s discography.
21 Savage, born Shéyaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, first broke into the mainstream with his 2016 EP “Savage Mode” led by gritty singles “No Heart” and “X” featuring Future. The EP was crafted with the help of legendary rap producer Metro Boomin, who had previously worked with other popular Atlanta-based trap acts such as Future and Migos and is recognized as one of the most in-demand hit-makers in the world.
21 continued his climb with his 2017 debut studio album “Issa Album” as well as a second collaboration with Metro Boomin alongside Migos member Offset, “Without Warning.” 21’s rise to stardom culminated in 2018’s “i am > i was,” a surprisingly moody and introspective record that received acclaim from critics and won 21 his first Grammy award for the standout song, “a lot.”
In 2019, 21 was in the news for a more unfortunate reason: He was detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency after it was revealed, in a shocking turn of events, that the presumed Atlanta native was actually born in England and entered the country illegally with his family when he was 7 years old. His visa had allegedly expired over 10 years prior. He was quickly released, but the arbitrary arrest of such a high-profile figure helped bring attention to the glaring flaws in the U.S. immigration system.
Somewhat surprisingly, “Savage Mode II” makes no reference to the incident with ICE. Instead, as the title implies, the album seeks to situate itself within the canon of work that blew 21 up. Sonically, it feels like an apt sequel. The sprawling record, with its punchy lyrics and ghostly production, is a clear evolution of 21’s haunting and ghastly trap sound.
Clocking in at 15 tracks across a brief 44 minute run time, the LP opens with an unexpected yet hilarious speech by actor Morgan Freeman. The 83-year-old Freeman pops up numerous times throughout the tracklist, speaking on everything from snitches to loyalty. He injects the album with a refreshing sense of levity.
The first song after the intro, “Runnin,” is a stand out, featuring a soulful and eerie sample of R&B singer Diana Ross mixed with a traditional trap beat, along with a simultaneously deadpan and impassioned vocal-line performance by 21. The rapper has often been accused of being low-energy and bordering on mumble rap, but no such accusations would be valid here. With a mix of auto-tune and bare vocals, 21’s flow is vibrant and energetic as he speaks on genre-typical vulgar rap themes of sex and excess.
The album stays strong throughout the tracklist, with other standouts including “Slidin,” a smooth three-minute narration of a violent day in Atlanta and “RIP Luv,” a slightly longer moody ode that features the rapper speaking on a tragically failed romance.
There are a few forgettable songs towards the middle of the album, however: “Snitches and Rats,” for example, features humorous lyrics, and the title could be a jab at rapper 6ix9ine and his arrest last year, but the song itself is lackluster, featuring an uninspired beat and a boring chorus.
Nevertheless, Metro’s production remains progressive as ever as he incorporates a wide variety of styles in the album’s beats, from the more electronic, “emo” beats of rappers like Lil Uzi Vert or XXXTentacion, to the soul samples that have long defined Kanye West, to the occasional surprise instrument like the screeching violin strings on “Rich N—a Shit” with fellow Atlanta rapper Young Thug.
The features on the project include a smooth Drake verse on “Mr. Right Now,” which contains a surprise revelation that the rapper once dated fellow rapper SZA, and an eclectic Young Thug performance over the hypnotizing beat of “Rich N—a Shit.” Despite these appearances, guests are mostly absent on the album. 21 is clearly the star here.
In spite of the album’s overall quality, it does lack the sense of originality that defined “i am > i was” and can feel like a step backwards for 21 in some respects. Whereas the last album featured a more vulnerable, personal 21 as he dealt with the consequences of rising fame and rampant materialism, most songs on “Savage Mode II” feature the bravado and swagger that are all too commonplace in rap.
Thankfully, the album’s wholesome final song, “Said N Done,” features some of that introspection, with 21 rapping about his mom being proud of his success and asking about others’ loyalty to him, a recurring theme throughout the rapper’s discography: “When it’s all said and done, who you gon’ ride for? / Who you gon’ slide for? Who you down to die for?” Ultimately, 21 is able to retain some of the self-consciousness that won him a Grammy, alongside his usually vulgar verses.
Overall, “Savage Mode II” is a solid album that provides an engaging listening experience and proves 21 Savage is still one of the most exciting players in the rap game, with potential to ascend even further.