“A lot” is a calculated surprise to open i am > i was, 21 Savage’s warmly embraced second studio album. The song’s prominent, sweet, and sorrowful soul sample; its startlingly contemplative tone; the tidy narrative of 21, a mumble rapper, crossing the great rap purist divide to land perhaps J. Cole’s best and most focused feature in two years—it’s all Grammy bait. On January 26, 2020, 21 Savage won that Grammy, for Best Rap Song. On August 26, as the first video from his latest album Savage Mode II explains, he and Metro Boomin brought that Grammy with them to Atlanta.
These are a few of the places that we see that Grammy in “Runnin,” in order: on a bird-shit–stained futon couch left out in the sun behind a dumpster; in the center console of an arctic white Z51 Corvette Stingray; in the hands of his neighbors, friends, and family, young and old; on the ground, next to his feet; on a stripper’s ass. Is it fair to say that 21’s career has mostly been defined by rejection? Rejection from critics that miscategorized him early on in his career; from the literal U.S. government over his British citizenship; and from a somewhat reactionary fandom that both made the same three jokes about “tea and crumpets” and struggled to reconcile 21 Savage, Slasher Movie Villain, with 21 Savage, Hopeless Romantic. Savage Mode II, out last Friday, returns to the well of a fruitful working relationship between 21 Savage and Metro Boomin, which spawned Savage’s 2016 breakout tape, Savage Mode. However, if you think of i am > i was as a purposive step toward crossover stardom, Savage Mode II is something of a declaration that stardom will happen, if it happens, on 21’s own terms.
This means that there are ballads on Savage Mode II. On “Mr. Right Now,” the Drake collaboration, 21 proudly spoils his boo thing, waits on her hand and foot. Young Thug’s “Metro!” tag yodels this song awake—it’s as bright and ditzy as his production gets on the project, informing an extremely competent “for the ladies’’ song it seems Savage couldn’t have made without making “FaceTime,” or appearing on Jhene Aiko’s “Triggered” remix first. Savage Mode II is indebted to other, previous 21 Savage releases, but also to other eras of rap music: The beat from “Steppin on Niggas” comes from Rodney O & Joe Cooley’s 1988 single “Everlasting Bass”; the album artwork is a nod to Pen & Pixel Graphics, a Houston-based design company that churned out iconic covers for No Limit and Cash Money Records in the 1990s and early 2000s; 50 Cent and turn-of-the-century Aftermath haunt “Many Men”; and 21 interpolates Gucci Mane’s “Street Nigga” flow to close “Snitches & Rats.” The structure of the album itself is a throwback—one rapper and one producer fixed into a single creative mode, calling in their friends to help with the really sticky parts. (A personal favorite so far is “Glock in My Lap”—on it, Metro Boomin, Southside, and Honorable C.N.O.T.E. connect like Voltron.) Eric B & Rakim, Missy Elliott and Timbaland, Juvenile and Mannie Fresh, 21 Savage and Metro Boomin. That’s the idea, anyway. “Instead of simply adding one’s common attributes to another’s,” Morgan Freeman explains in the album’s intro, “they somehow tend to multiply all attributes of both.”
Yes, Morgan Freeman narrates Savage Mode II. All of his speaking parts, however, were written by first-generation Dungeon Family member Big Rube—even if it wasn’t a Freeman original, I got a childish delight out of listening to him patiently explain the difference between snitches and rats. “A rat is a fuckin’ rat period”—Morgan Freeman. Freeman’s voice immediately helps Savage Mode II off on the right foot: morbid but theatrically so; severe but ridiculous. As I was first listening to this album, the president was being admitted to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center after contracting COVID-19, and an indigestible amount of information flooded out about his condition, as well as the heavily attended public events he’d been to while he may or may not have been quietly positive. I was reminded of the 2005 War of the Worlds remake, wherein the invading alien force, after razing every major Earth city with superior technology and numbers, just up and died because they didn’t know they couldn’t breathe the planet’s air. It’s an uneasy and abrupt conclusion to the film: As the big scary death tripods walk off into the amber distance to collapse and smoke clears off the rubble in the foreground, Freeman explains that the aliens were “destroyed, after all man’s weapons and devices had failed, by the tiniest creatures God in his wisdom put upon this earth.” Morbid, but theatrically so; severe but ridiculous: We were supposed to believe that in the fullness of interstellar travel, and with all the preparations they made, it wouldn’t occur to the aliens to terraform the planet first? The existential threat, in the third and final act, just … disappears on its own? It feels too simple to be the end. Of course, real life is not a movie, and artists don’t tie their release schedules to world-stopping events. Still, the parallel is too convenient to resist.
The first music you hear on Savage Mode II is also a soul sample, but in contrast to that of 21’s sophomore album, “Runnin” slithers back into someplace deep and murky, and crackles with the manic energy needed to adequately soundtrack the weekend’s madness. “Called the first one Savage Mode, my mood, that’s what it was / 2016 we was ridin’ around beatin’ niggas up in the club.”
Let’s not forget that the second song on i am > i was is “break da law.”