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21 Savage’s Notes From the Underground

The Atlanta MC is the finest purveyor of trap horrorcore

GIF via video for “Dip Dip”

Before listening to Savage Mode, Atlanta rapper 21 Savage’s joint project with producer Metro Boomin (released last week), there are a few things you should know:

21 has a tattoo of a dagger between his eyes, and right above it on his forehead, just below his hairline, the words “Death Before Dishonor” are scrawled in cursive. He was expelled from the DeKalb County School District after getting caught with a gun in the seventh grade. He also doesn’t “rap,” at least not how we commonly understand “rapping.” It’s more like he’s giving murmured firsthand accounts of crimes and misdemeanors, loud enough for only you to hear, so that when it comes time for the prosecution to build its case, there won’t be anything but hearsay to corroborate the story. It’s steady, unemotional, and at times, keenly unsettling.

It’s also completely intoxicating.

Let me back up: 21 Savage is a rapper from Atlanta who first rose to prominence with his 2015 release, The Slaughter Tape — 14 tracks of dogged plain-speaking about an incredibly rough coming of age. In 2013, 21 was shot six times, and his best friend was taken from him. When he’d reached the crawl space underneath his all-time low, he turned to rap, getting a signal boost from some of Atlanta’s biggest producers, like Zaytoven, TM88, Sonny Digital, and of course, Metro Boomin. Apparently the connection with the latter felt so right that they decided to bang out a whole nine-track project together.

The first non-ad-libbed line you hear on Savage Mode is, “I smashed the skripper in the hotel wit’ my chains on.” On paper, that reads like another rapper boasting about a predilection for using women as disposable playthings. But on “No Advance,” 21’s stoic delivery and Metro’s haunted chords — like something wafting out of The Joker’s demonic funhouse in Batman: The Killing Joke — make the boast feel labored and joyless; like a coping method for all the messed-up shit he’s seen and done, coming up in a rough neighborhood, more than anything else. On Savage Mode, the pursuit of altered states (there is literally a song called “Mad High”) feels more like an escape from the pangs of being sober. 21 himself tweeted, “just because i rap don’t mean im not still human.”

But let’s not lose the plot in this dime-store therapy session — 21 isn’t looking to be redeemed as some tragic hero. 21 is the gangsterest rapper. He is the BAD GUY, BAD GUY, BAD GUY, BAD GUY.

Imagine if all of Chief Keef’s GBE/300 crew was rolled into a single person and raised on a strict diet of Lil B and Three 6 Mafia when they were still Triple Six (the horrorcore years), and you’ve just about got it.

And Savage Mode isn’t some sullen, mopey plight. It’s wild, deleterious, and most safely listened to in a padded room. This is stick talk over teeth-rattling 808s, apt to make you want to fight the nearest person. Listening to it actually made me recall a passage in Dostoyevsky’s Notes From the Underground (stay with me here), in which the writer wrestles with the merit of things that are “conducive to welfare” (read: boring and good for you). Eventually he arrives at the conclusion that “whether it’s good or bad, it is sometimes pleasant, too, to smash things.”

Hell yeah it is.

Seriously, listen to “No Heart” and tell me you don’t want to crush brick walls with your fists and chew on the rubble.

So much of Savage Mode recalls the scores they run over surveillance footage in First 48, and that’s largely thanks to Metro Boomin. He gave 21 a treasure trove of ghoulish, off-kilter production to kick his stark, raspy truisms over. With this pack, Metro seemed less concerned with crafting a club banger than he was with keeping us awake at night.

Savage Mode is mostly grim and mirthless, but with “Feel It,” 21 at least attempts a love song about a girl he used to boost cars with; though it still sounds like the villain’s theme from a slasher film right before one of the leads gets killed off. Plus, he talks about drinking codeine by the pint again.

If you were looking for some glimmer of humanity to salve your conscience about enjoying this bloody joyride, “Feel It” is as vulnerable as 21 gets. He raps about bringing this girl home to his mother, but only after he raps about fucking like a bear. If the whole project weren’t so strangely enjoyable it’d be heartbreaking; this is all the warmth and depth that he’s capable of mustering.

Nobody’s perfect. And some don’t even have time to bother with being redeemable.