21 Savage’s Quest to Become a Better Man
Last of a Dying Breed
Platinum-selling songs and those eight M's in his bank account don't keep 21 Savage satisfied. The Atlanta rapper is on a quest to become a better man.
Words: Georgette Cline
Images: Travis Shinn
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Spring 2018 issue of of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
21 Savage is on a mission to fly to Mars, even if he ends up dying on the way back. After being shot six times on his 21st birthday and surviving the life-threatening ordeal in 2013, there’s nothing that really scares the 25-year-old Atlanta rapper—not even a trip to an uninhabited planet light-years away. As the young rap star sits inside his capacious, modestly furnished, rented mansion (“If it got an elevator, it’s a mansion. So, it’s got an elevator”) in Northwest Atlanta on a brisk winter night in February, his fingers methodically rolling a blunt on a mahogany dining table, 21 Savage expands on his dreams of flying a plane—a vision he’s had since he was 6 years old.
“I always just wanted to fly a goddamn plane,” he reveals, visibly proud of finally accomplishing one of his life goals shortly after his 25th birthday last year. “Don’t nobody even know that shit. I used to look at navy movies and shit, fighter pilot movies, like The Tuskegee Airmen. I just was always like, How I fly in a plane? You goddamn going in the sky. That’s just like going to Mars.”
Arriving on the Red Planet and looking back at Earth would be his ultimate high. “I’ll go to Mars, even if I got there and died on the way back,” admits 21, dressed comfortably in a white NikeLab windbreaker and white Kappa track pants. “It’s just the opportunity. How many people can say they went to Mars? You can see a lot of shit on the internet in pictures and shit, but just imagine you looking at Earth out of your eyes. That shit gotta be like, a high or something.”
Flying through cloudy skies and flashes of sunshine—a moment that can be witnessed in a video he shared on his Twitter account in October 2017, in which he safely landed a plane—is much like life on the ground for 21 Savage; there are memorable moments of triumph paired with unfortunate tribulations. He’s got three double platinum-selling songs (“Bank Account,” “X” and “No Heart”), two gold-certified projects (Issa Album, Savage Mode) and a chart-topping song (his feature on Post Malone’s “Rockstar” helped the song sit at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart for eight weeks) to his credit, but the road to stardom for 21 hasn’t always been paved with gold.
Before he made his successful foray into hip-hop in 2015, with his monotonous tone and minacious lyrics, 21 Savage, born Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, lost a younger brother and two best friends to gun violence—all three were shot and killed in separate incidents. 21 himself has been shot—once in his collarbone, neck, hand and finger, and twice in his arm. Couple that with getting expelled from Georgia’s DeKalb County public school system as an adolescent for bringing a gun to class in the seventh grade—he dropped out by ninth grade—then being arrested in 2014, for weed and gun possession and intent to deliver a controlled substance prove life’s hurdles have been plenty, but he’s jumped over them and kept running without fail. He’s got goals to achieve.
“I wanna leave behind a plane and a big-ass house,” 21 says matter-of-factly of his legacy. “Owned 100 percent, and I wanna have a company, an establishment that’s making a lot of money. That’s what I wanna leave my kids with.” He plans to spend “10 Ms” on this jet, which will have his name on the side, and hopes his next child is born on board. Dropping $10 million on a plane isn’t easily attainable, but his early rhymes on “Picky” (“21 Savage, I’m in love with the money”)—the 2014 DJ Plugg-produced track that put him on hip-hop’s radar— indicate he’ll find a way to do it.
While 21 has reaped the benefits of his work as a rapper—releasing The Slaughter Tape, the Sonny Digital-helmed EP Free Guwop and Slaughter King in 2015, his Metro Boomin-executive produced EP Savage Mode in 2016, his debut album, Issa Album, and Without Warning, his collab tape with Offset and Metro Boomin, in 2017—he’s also been holding down duties as a father to three children: Kamari, 5; Ashaad, 3; and Rhian, 3. Just before entering 21’s home, a car seat sits outside while inside, a box of diapers rests on the floor. A recent video he shared on his Instagram Stories in February showcases a trip to the Gucci store, where he spent $40,000 on clothes and shoes for his kids. It’s clear his two sons and daughter are afforded the finer things in life as a result of the rhymer’s business acumen.
The public doesn’t get to see this side of 21 Savage, a doting dad who’s also an avid NBA 2K player—he once won $10,000 from Lil Yachty betting on the video game. His favorite pastime with his children: picking them up and helping them dunk in a little basketball hoop at home. Most parents have a strict bedtime for their kids but not 21. He lets them sleep in his bed and watch cartoons all night. An added bonus: they get to snack on candy. When asked what kind of role model he is for his children, he’s quick to choose a different title. “Role model, as far as my kids, I try to be more like a superhero than a role model ’cause I don’t want them to go through what I went through like, growing up and stuff,” he says. “So, I spoil the hell out of my kids. They say you don’t ’posed to, but they come over here, they play video games ’til five in the morning. They do what the hell they want to do.” Dad’s house is lit.
Chilling with his kids at home, away from the glitz and glamour of the music industry, is where 21 finds comfort. He’s not a fan of the limelight. But for a guy who has a knife tattooed on his forehead, raps of murder and mayhem and enjoys being out of the spotlight (“I’m a laid-back, low-key kinda nigga”), 21 seems to be an opposite match to his girlfriend Amber Rose’s bubbly personality, free-spirited air and very public personal and professional life. [Editors' note: Since this interview took place, there have been rumors of 21 Savage and Amber Rose’s breakup but XXL cannot confirm their status]. While she encourages 21 to be the best that he can be and do things he normally wouldn’t do like take vitamins and drink water, Amber, 34, is also trying to free him. “She say you can’t be a prisoner of your own fame,” 21 explains with a laugh. “She be tryna break me outta being like that. I don’t really like that shit, like, the public shit.
“That’s why I be so low-key ’cause everybody got something to say, everybody think they know everything about you, they know what’s going on with you, people lie on you. Then you got the internet. I don’t be trying to deal with that shit. That’s why I just stay under the radar... I don’t really think it’s right or wrong when it come to fame. It’s like, who you are as a person. Just ’cause you wanna be low-key, I can’t say that’s not the right way. You might want to be more open, I might want to be more secretive. But neither one is wrong or right. It’s just preference.” Real Gs move in silence, though.
As he stands inside Professional Photo Resources studio in Atlanta, two years removed from his first cover as part of the 2016 XXL Freshman class, 21’s a changed man in many aspects. While he’s still got love for designer threads, presently donning an all-black Yves Saint Laurent ensemble thanks to his stylist Kim Alex Hall, the Saint Laurent Don is mentally on a higher level. From his business to how he looks at the world, he’s aiming to be a better man. “Making more money and helping more people,” he conveys of his 2018 plans. “Getting better, better me, being more successful, which means learning how to be more happy. And just being better. My music better, my time better, everything better.”
“Rockstar,” 21’s hit collaboration with Post Malone last year, put him in a much better place as far as visibility. The song catapulted him further into mainstream acceptance when it held the Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 spot for eight weeks. The opening lines on his verse (“I’ve been in the Hills fuckin’ superstars/Feeling like a pop star”) are indicative of his current position in the hip-hop landscape. 21 has made it. Teaming up with Post and, more recently, Cardi B on “Bartier Cardi,” and A$AP Rocky and Gucci Mane (one of his favorite artists) on “Cocky” exemplifies 21’s appeal to his fellow rap cohorts.
Kei Henderson, one of 21 Savage’s co-managers, attests to that. “I think his voice is just special,” Henderson, 33, states. “It just cuts through. On any record, no matter who it is, you know it’s 21 Savage. On ‘Rockstar,’ I don’t think people expected the pairing but when you hear it together, you’re like, ‘Oh, they sound fire.’ Same with Cardi B [on ‘Bartier Cardi’]; it’s like, ‘Yo, they sound crazy together.’ He’s monotone, but his words are meaningful so when he speaks people stop and listen.”
Even Fox News political commentator Tomi Lahren, a staunch Republican, has stopped to listen. In January, Lahren, who’s publicly bashed the likes of Jay-Z and engaged in Twitter beef with Wale, surprised rap fans when she posted a video of herself on her Instagram Stories lip-syncing 21 Savage’s lyrics to “Bank Account,” a song that has earned over 350 million streams on Spotify. The rapper isn’t too fazed by Lahren being a fan of his music; he’s more amused by President Trump, someone Lahren supports, clapping back at Jay-Z for referring to him as a “superbug.” While many rappers aren’t fond of Trump’s political practice in office, 21 is indifferent.
“Everybody say he racist and shit,” he recalls. “I don’t really be paying attention to that shit. I used to like him when he had the show, The Apprentice, and he’d be like, ‘You’re fired.’ I thought he was gangsta, how he used to handle business. But shit, they say a lot of bad shit about him though, like, he wanna build a wall and shit. I don’t know, I ain’t political. I don’t know what be real and what be fake. I don’t got no problem with Donald... It ain’t never gonna be just like no perfect America. I don’t care what you do, who you kick out the country, who you don’t let in the country, like, Black, White, Mexican or whatever, shit. It’s always gon’ be problems. And the sooner we figure out that it’s always gon’ be like that, everybody will live their life. It’s just certain shit you not gon’ be able to change. Period. I don’t care what it is, like, certain shit you just can’t change, no matter what you do. So, shit, I don’t know how I want America to be.”
Despite 21 admitting he has no issues with Trump, he’s far from clueless about what’s going on with America’s politics. His track “Nothin New,” on his Issa Album, details the country’s ills and the plight of young Black men from 21’s viewpoint. “Shit gettin’ outrageous/Treat us like slaves then they lock us up in cages/Young, Black, poor, ain’t had a father since a baby/Why you think we skip school and hang out on the pavement?” he rhymes. The song, far removed from the murder and pistols he perpetuates in his lyrics, showcases his maturation.
On his sophomore album, 21 Savage plans to go in a bit of a different direction. “I’m going back gangsta,” he explains. “I’m going back to what brought me in the door. All that other music be cool. I don’t be knowing what the fans want ’cause it be like...they want, like, the ‘Bank Account’ music, but I don’t know. I wanna get back on some gangsta shit ’cause I feel like everybody rap about money and cars. Like they say I rap about too much guns and shit, but that’s what the hell be going on. That’s what really be going on, like, in real life.
"Everybody don’t have a Bentley in real life. It’s a lot of people that got guns that ain’t got shit. So, I be trying to go back more. I’m tryin’ to go back more to that side on the next album and not promoting it, but just, voicing it. Like being they voice ’cause the rest of America don’t hear them type [of ] people. It’s very few people who can speak for them. So, that’s what I wanna go back to.” It’s no surprise, since he prides himself on keeping it real and authentic in his rhymes.
Recently, 21 Savage locked in studio time in New York City during Fashion Week with his longtime collaborator Metro Boomin and Memphis rap newcomer BlocBoy JB, who scored a hit in February with the Drake-assisted track “Look Alive.” 21 is crafting a new project with Metro, whom he calls “the greatest producer of all time.” The new music from this session may not appear on either that project or 21’s forthcoming album since it’s early in the creative process, but his desire to work alongside a rising rapper like BlocBoy proves 21’s ear is still to the streets even though he’s moved to Northwest Atlanta.
His boy Chevy put him on to the “Shoot” rhymer’s music. The fact that three Southern artists were working in a studio in Manhattan still blows 21’s mind. “In the 1990s, who would’ve thought a New York studio would be full of Memphis and Atlanta artists,” he voices. “That shit crazy.”
21’s got a wishlist of collaborators for his new music that includes Pharrell, Beyoncé, Rihanna and SZA. The “X” rapper, who’s entertained his supporters on Snapchat by singing the latter’s Grammy-nominated ode “Love Galore,” is looking forward to the possibility of working with SZA since he’s an R&B fan at heart. As for Pharrell, 21 believes he’s a “creative-ass muthafucka” who hasn’t lost his touch over the years. “Everything he do just be fire to me,” 21 states.
Before he drops his sophomore album, 21 is set to release a joint project with fellow Atlanta rapper Young Nudy, his cousin. The two have at least 20 songs—some dating back to 2015—to choose from for the effort, which is loosely inspired by their Zone 6 stomping grounds. By 21’s account, Nudy is the rapper to pay attention to in the streets of Atlanta. Tracks like Tay-K’s “The Race (Remix)” and the Pi’erre Bourne-produced “EA” demonstrate their chemistry on a record.
With several projects in the works and a North American tour kicking off this April with Post Malone and SOB x RBE, 2018 looks to be another banner year for 21 Savage. Dropping new music and hitting the road means more money is on the way, but that’s not his only concern. 21 wants complete happiness. He’s got a ways to go, but it’s within his reach. Progressing is the word he uses to describe himself at this point in his life (“I can’t say I’m the best, can’t say I’m the worst”). On his journey to achieve that feeling of being on top of the world, his sense of humor takes the edge off. Yes, 21’s got jokes. “Damn, y’all got me wired up,” he says in jest before removing the lavalier mic used for the interview from his jacket. “I ain’t no snitch.” You can take 21 Savage out of the streets, but you can never take that street ethos away from him.
Check out more from XXL’s Spring 2018 issue, out now, including G-Eazy's cover story.
See Photos of 21 Savage's XXL Magazine Spring 2018 Cover Shoot