Slaughter Gang LLC/Epic Records
Slaughter Gang LLC / Epic Records

When the 2016 XXL Freshman Class was revealed to the world in June of last year, one of the most unfamiliar faces to grace the cover was likely 21 Savage. Mainstream hip-hop fans were surely in the know when it came to picks like Anderson .Paak, Desiigner and Lil Dicky, but 21 was a much more under the radar pick. However, if these 12 months have proven anything, it’s that 21 has moved from beneath the depths of the haunting trap underground and into hip-hop’s star studded limelight. The majority of his exponential success came from his acclaimed Metro Boomin collaboration LP, Savage Mode, which, if nothing else, highlighted 21 as a unique voice from the streets with a chilling style and delivery.

His debut solo album, aptly titled Issa Album, picks up pretty much where Savage Mode thematically left off, but stylistically this project gets some added flash, flare and formidability. These style upgrades are apparent as soon as the album starts with the intro track “Famous” featuring a luscious beat and a singing attempt from 21. Up until this moment, the Atlanta native has strictly been rapping with a menacing monotone cadence, which has really become his signature sound. However, when he adds some harmonic pitch to the end of this first verse, it works. The song centers on staying down despite being considerably more famous than he was a few years ago. It's typical 21 territory, adding embellishment to the tail ends of “Makin' sure my kids happy/They dependent on their daddy/Tryin' not to let the streets distract me” are signs of an progressing artist.

Although the singing trials are appreciated and duly noted as a sign of versatility, 21 is still at his best when he’s rapping with an ice-cold demeanor. This evocative rhyme slinging pops right back up on the second track “Bank Account," a boastful anthem about how many zeros he's got in the bank ("I got 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 M's in my bank account, on god, yeah"). Murderous lines about taking out those who oppose him or deny the fact that he’s got millions of dollars in his bank account are hard to ignore. If “Wanna see a body, nigga? Get you killed, dog/Wanna tweet about me, nigga? Get you killed, dog/Killed dog, I'm a real dog, you a lil' dog” doesn’t make you take him seriously then nothing will.

The proceeding few tracks like “Close My Eyes” and “Bad Business” are identical examples of the "X" rapper really diving into the hypnotically vicious style that sets him apart from the rest of this new wave of rappers. In many ways, 21 structures this album in a linear direction that plays out like a gritty horror movie—expect 21 to be the super villain in this movie. Nevertheless, it keeps attention spans fixed on what will happen next, despite his flow being increasingly monotone.

The pinnacle of this album though is “Thug Life,” a loosely centered Tupac Shakur tribute that has 21 rapping over perhaps his first ever soul sample. Metro Boomin, who produces over half the album, crafts up one of the hardest beats of the year that combines the perfect amount of muffled sample vocals and rattling trap snares. In fact, as good as 21 performs on this album, Metro is arguably the MVP. Similar to 21, Metro’s trap range is ever expanding and although recurring drum patterns pop up here and there, he’s able to control the mood of the song with intricate additions such as keys, samples and a variety of “If young Metro don’t trust you I'ma shoot you” drops.

The final experimentation for 21 comes in the form of “FaceTime,” which is definitely his most vulnerable and light-hearted song to date. Produced by Twice As Nice and DJ Mustard, 21 raps about simply wanting to FaceTime with his girl. “I'm too drunk to text so can we FaceTime?/I won't waste your time if you don't waste mine” is the most romantic 21 has ever been on wax and it’s actually pretty refreshing. His singing isn’t necessarily pitched perfect but that’s what makes the emotion so raw. A similar raw emotion surfaces on the depressingly real track “Numb,” where 21 desperately attempts to numb his troubled past with his money.

“7 Minute Freestyle” is a clear example of a track better left on the cutting room floor. In a world where attention spans are incredibly short and rappers have a fleeting window of opportunity to capture a listener's ear, 21 shouldn't be bogging down an album with a seven-minute freestyle with little direction or sustenance. His bars tend to be on the lackadaisical side as it is and as he develops into a more matured artist, he must be somewhat cognizant of his wider audience's preferences.

All in all, 21 Savage manages to craft a fairly concise project with Issa Album about all the things that make him such a compelling rapper in today’s hip-hop landscape. There are plenty of brooding bars delivered with his signature monotone flow but there are also some very human moments, which come as a welcomed surprise on tracks like the Zaytoven-produced "Nothin New," where he leaves the gun talk to the wayside to wax poetic about political injustice and police brutality. These small yet integral moments of vulnerability are what give 21 the opportunity to become a more well-rounded artist.

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