21 Savage Draws Wisdom From Struggle on ‘I Am > I Was’

21 Savage came from Atlanta’s notorious zone 6, and rose to the top of the rap game with his 2017 debut Issa Album. His follow-up, “I Am > I Was,” finds him sticking to it with the same skill and flair that brought him there, but betraying an occasional hint of disillusionment. The result is an album full of the expected braggadocio, but with competing themes of pride and cynicism, sometimes coming across as a bit inconclusive. It gives the sense of Savage, having made it this far, taking a panoramic look, and trying to make sense of it all. It’s a star-studded affair, featuring the likes of J Cole, Childish Gambino, and Offset, all of whom complement Savage’s dynamic style.

Opener “A Lot” begins with Savage repeatedly asking, ““How much money you got?” and answering “A lot,” as if to secure firm grounding in hip-hop cliche at the onset. But things take a swift turn when he moves on to other questions, including “How many problems you got?” He spends the next verse recollecting his hardships, and it’s curious how relaxed his manner is, considering all the weight he carries. He has a distinctly smooth, fluid delivery. J Cole spits a verse, skirting around the rhythm in a freer way, and the two have a perfect chemistry. Cole is a rare voice in rap trying to promote a positive message, and he expresses frustration here, venting, “I’m batting a thousand… It’s got to the point that these rappers don’t even like rappin’ with me.”

“Break da Law” does a full 180, with a hard beat and some trap flavor. It’s Savage upholding his street cred, making threats like “Don’t you cross the gang, dawg / We’re like barbed wire.” Needless to say, this thug posturing is played out, but Savage infuses some vitality that sets him apart from the innumerable posing jokers flashing gang signs in selfies. Salvage has both authenticity and a knack for unpretentiously clever wordplay. At one point, he talks of having a Beretta that he’s got in falsetto. Presumably, he’s using a silencer? Next up, “A&T” revisits the hook of Three Six Mafia’s “Ass & Titties,” arguably the purest expression of admiration for the feminine form in modern history. Savage puts a twist on it, however, recruiting female rapper Yung Miami. It’s very much in the vein of TLC’s 1999 hit “No Scrubs” a calling out for guys to step their game up and show some value. “Gun Smoke” is a return to “Break da Law.” Savage has received considerable criticism for history with guns. He was expelled in the seventh grade for gun possession, and later in life reportedly started a movement called “Guns Down, Paintballs Up,” only to be deemed misguided. In this song he raps, “Savage, why you always rappin’ ’bout guns for? / ‘Cause, bitch, I fell in love with the gun smoke.”

“1.5” features Migos’ Offset, who adds his characteristic flavor, but it’s really not much of a song a brief, repetitive, lighthearted interlude of sorts. “All My Friends” brings the highly anticipated reunion of Savage with Post Malone. It isn’t as immediately infectious as the megahit “Rockstar,” but it does register in a way that qualifies the broad appeal of that song, the way the two artists’ styles mesh. The subject matter, is once again, a very familiar one in hip-hop think Mike Jones’ “Back Then” or Kanye’s “Gold digger.” “Can’t Leave Without It” has some hilarious lines like “So many hoes, had to get a vasectomy,” and “Closest thing y’all gettin’ to a handshake is the beat clappin.’” Lil Baby makes an appearance to, and calls to attention an often underlooked reality, saying, “They get the swag from Atlanta and run off.” Hip-hop might have originated in the South Bronx, but it’s hardly contestable the Atlanta is the new mecca.

“ASMR,” an acronym for “autonomous sensory meridian response,” doesn’t quite live up to its name. Music that fits the description is characterized by sounds in regions of the auditory spectrum found to trigger an especially powerful emotional response. A little laughably, Savage’s idea of ASMR is nothing more than rapping in a whisper. That aside, he has some badass lines like “I just need one Glock, Nas need one mic (Lil’ bitch.)” “Ball W/o You” adds new gravity to the recurrent theme of betrayal. In an especially reflective moment, Savage reasons, “I’d rather have loyalty than love / ‘Cause love really don’t mean jack… See love is just a feeling / You can love somebody and still stab them in the back.”

“Good Day” is a dark spin on Ice Cube’s classic “It Was a Good Day.” The original was an uncommonly positive song about a simply great day, but with a few lines that shed light on the harshness of inner city life, for example, “Today I didn’t even have to use my AK.” Savage takes this premise, and goes full gangster rap, with Project Pat appearing to do his invariable six-syllable act, and rapping NWA-style, about “drug dealers, cop killer, gang spitters.” Disconcerting as it might be that such a joyful song has been so mercilessly perverted, it’s understandable in the context of Savage’s life, which has had an effect that he communicates succinctly in the following track “Padlock,” saying, “Heart so cold, got a padlock.” His easy, deadpan delivery is especially striking here, with the echoes and adlibs following his lines enhancing the effect, as if expressing fleeting thoughts reverberating.

“Monster” features a chorus of children singing, “Power, the money, and the fame make a monster.” Mind you, this album is loaded with boasts from Savage about these very things. But that’s kind of a necessity in the rap game, and he certainly has the right to boast. But it’s not uncommon for rappers to eventually adopt the “More money, more problems” gospel remember Puffy in the nineties? The illustrious Childish Gambino drops a verse, with all his usual flair and depth. At one point, he echoes Cole’s gripes from the opening track, regarding the hip-hop scene. Gambino considers, “Might pull out, the game so weak,” and claims, “The industry savage and most of you average.”

At this point, Savage has devoted enough of the running time to convince you that if you mess with him or his crew, you’ll probably be shot. With that cleared up, he now goes full sappy on “Letter 2 My Momma,” a song about his appreciation for his mother that reads like a personal note all sincerity, not even funneled into a creative channel, but just left bare. It’s so innocent that it can seem absurd in a rap song same as it would in, say, a punk or metal song. But Savage couldn’t care less about coming across as soft on this track. And just for good measure,  he reminds you of how hard he is on the concluding track “4L,” with lyrics like “Bodybag a nigga ass, throw his body in the trash.”

Overall, Savage’s latest record breaks little ground from a musical standpoint, but the impressive roster of features all add color. The album is peculiar in how it sporadically alternates between almost horrorcore gangster rap and more reflective numbers. The shifts are engaging but make for an album that is in’t all that cohesive. On the other hand, consider the title, “I Am > I Was.” All the songs here either expound values accrued from experience, or put on airs adopted from the same experience. On thing for certain is that 21 Savage is on top of his rap game, always sounding in his element, and with no shortage of clever lines and references.

I Am > I Was” is available  Dec. 21 on Apple Music.