Music

Savage Unlocked: Why 21 Savage Is Becoming Rap’s Newest Generational Superstar

On Sunday night (Jan. 21), 21 Savage clinched his fourth Billboard 200 No. 1 album with the release of his third solo LP, american dream. The long-awaited blockbuster set arrives over a half-decade after his sophomore effort, 2018’s i am > i was, and could be the masterwork that etches Savage’s name as a generational star for years to come. 

While a glaring time lapse between solo albums would derail most artists’ footing, 21 remained consistent, darting out scene-stealing features and indelible full-length collaborative projects, including 2020’s Savage Mode II with Metro Boomin and 2022’s Her Loss with Drake. And even before debunking the mythical sophomore curse, 21 was a stringent rookie with unyielding charm, detonating the mixtape scene in 2016 when teaming with Metro on Savage Mode heaters such as “No Heart” and “X.” Granted, Savage’s whimsical wordplay was not quite yet top-tier, as he hurled lines that made backpackers grimace. Still, at the same time, his records were instant headbangers amongst the younger generation and ear candy for clubgoers. 

A prime example of Savage’s genius came in 2017 with “Bank Account.” With Metro Boomin helming the production, Savage scripted a minimal-yet-sticky hook that became a chant-along for money-hungry go-getters and led to his biggest Billboard Hot 100 hit at that time, the song peaking at No. 12. Savage’s playground wit and “less is more” mantra made his verses highly digestible and downright fun. Even if you look to his features, like one Post Malone’s Hot 100 chart-topper “rockstar,” Savage’s instantly unforgettable one-liners, “Your wifey say I’m lookin’ like a whole snack,” or “Sweeter than a Pop-Tart, you know you are not hard,” helped the poker-faced rapper become a peerlessly entertaining star. 

When paired with Offset on Without Warning or Drake on Her Loss, 21 is a chameleon who blends well regardless of his co-star and is uncomplicated in his approach. He can easily serve as a reliable wingman when carving out club bangers or the antagonizing heel when sparring with the opps. And while his quick-witted verses can be playful and in jest, 21 can easily juxtapose those efforts with his harrowing street tales, which made 2018’s i am > i was a step in the right direction. Songs like “letter 2 my momma,” “all my friends” and his Grammy award-winning collaboration “a lot” with J. Cole exemplified Savage’s introspectiveness and free-flowing ruminations as a deep thinker.

Along with 21 increasing his depth lyrically, his penchant for chopped-up soul samples and growth as a songwriter – both already apparent in i am > i was – reaches a new level on american dream. While 21’s lust for bedroom theatrics (“Sneaky”) and street raps (“Dangerous”) remains at an all-time high on his third album, he digs deeper and offers more on the cinematic set. After struggling through a years-long saga regarding his immigration status, Savage uses bits and pieces of his trials and tribulations to set the table for american dream, including getting his mother to speak on their journey to America in the album’s intro and outro. Rich samples, including Rose Royce’s “Wishing on a Star” for 21’s “All of Me,” are the backdrop for his tales of a turbulent upbringing and his conflicted fight between good and evil. “I seen plenty homicides and still kept my focus,” he spits. 

The album standout, “Letter to My Brudda,” is a passionate push by 21 that centers around deceit and disappointment for his comrades and shows a more sophisticated writer versus previous years. “They’ll stand on couches with you, but won’t stand on business,” he raps in dismay. The album’s outro is probably 21’s most gripping showing: “Dark Days” sees him encouraging the youth to stay in school and not risk their lives for short-term gain, rapping: “You say you love your switch, but it doesn’t love you back/ You can hug that block all night, it ain’t gon’ hug you back.”  

And when Savage reaches into the R&B world, it’s not that much of a stretch, as he fits seamlessly with whichever singer joins his escapades: The second half of american dream thrives off ’90s soul samples with Summer Walker (“Prove It”) and Brent Faiyaz (“Should’ve Wore a Bonnet”). And, of course, his murderous streak on the charts remains intact, courtesy of his No. 5-debuting Hot 100 single “Redrum,” which is already his highest-peaking unaccompanied hit on the chart.

Stat-wise, 21 already measures up well with his turn-of-the-’20s contemporaries, including Lil Baby, Lil Uzi Vert, Gunna, Lil Durk, and Playboi Carti, with his four Billboard 200 No. 1 albums and Grammy win for best rap song in 2020. He has the respect of rap luminaries such as Jay-Z and Nas, with the latter reeling him in for a feature in 2022 with “One Mic, One Gun,” disproving Savage’s inability to mesh with the older generation. His discography is pristine, boasting some of the best collaborative projects in the last decade, and his feature run is just as torrid as when he first entered the rap ecosystem, especially after last year’s showings with Travis Scott (“Topia Twins”) and Rod Wave (“Turks & Caicos”). 

Though Savage has unlocked many levels so far in his young career, he still has yet to reach the status of superstars like Drake, J. Cole, Future, or Young Thug for most rap fans. Part of the issue stems from Savage not having a consensus classic album. Though american dream puts Savage on the right path to reach the mountainous heights before him, he needs to buckle down, continue to ease up on the cartoonish punchlines and create more moments like “Brudda” and “Dark Days” to have that magnum opus. And though it’s great to have the star power and cosigns 21 has on his resume, whether it’s a Drake collab album or a Post Malone record, 21 will need to churn out more solo hits to prove that he doesn’t need help and can stand alone — like “Redrum,” whose strong debut and positive momentum proves he’s getting off to a good start there.

Before 21 can become the face of the new generation, though, he still must develop his willingness to become a formidable performer. After touring with Drake and J. Cole, the biggest question will be can he hold his own as a headliner and closer. While he has the anthems to deliver an electric showing, he needs the right energy and consistency to become an all-around threat for years. Also, while he has shown strides lyrically, it’ll be vital for 21 to continue to grow in that pocket, while maintaining that crossover ability. 

The greats have been able to keep their essence and edge, all while barreling through the doors of mainstream with their hits. If he can develop those skills, then he’ll be the Savage he always wanted to be.

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