Slaughter Gang
Slaughter Gang

It’s been a little over a year since 21 Savage posted “Red Rag, Blue Rag,” the first video from his debut mixtape, Slaughter Tape, which dropped in May of 2015. In that short span of 14 months, 21 has gone from a relative unknown to a local superstar, touring around the South to crowds that know every word of his music. Songs like “Red Opps,” “Dip Dip” and “Skrrt Skrrt” have become fixtures from Houston to Atlanta, and now the biggest moment of his career so far is here: a full-length project with Metro Boomin called Savage Mode.

The ATL rapper's talent lies in his ability to create his own world and never deviate from it. You could never picture him shedding a tear, taking a loss or choosing non-violence. The drugs he sells, the weapons he totes, the things he’ll do to you if you talk shit to him; these things define 21’s universe.

Savage Mode, then, captures his essence with a tighter focus than his last three releases. The project contains nine songs and clocks in at 32 minutes, making it a digestible, bite-size intro for newcomers. Metro’s executive producer role is without a doubt to thank for the album’s efficient brevity, and 21 seems to work better with one producer for any given project. (His second best tape to date, Free Guwop, was produced almost entirely by Sonny Digital.) Savage Mode, with its use of melody and subtle production, is by far 21’s best mixtape so far.

Subtlety is actually the key to Savage Mode, as 21 delivers threats without raising his voice across a majority of the album. Metro likewise doesn’t do too much, and even additional production by Southside (“No Heart”), Zaytoven (“Feel It”) and G Koop (“Ocean Drive”) is far from excessive, instead feeding into the project’s subdued mood. The strength in Savage Mode is how it holds the same low-key note for half an hour, giving you just enough to want more without overdoing it.

Listeners expecting mind-bending metaphors and clever punchlines are missing the point. 21 Savage, a member of the 2016 XXL Freshman class, clearly isn't trying to be a lyricist; his music is a straight shot of liquor, not a fancy mixed drink. There is a distinct feeling of distilled pain and emotion in his deadpan, uninterested delivery, as his tone conveys more than the content of his words can. Technique becomes substance.

As popular as songs like "No Heart," "No Advance" and "X" are with fans, it's the second half of Savage Mode that trumps the first. You can hear the distant bitterness in 21's voice on "Real Nigga," and when he starts nearly yelling on "Mad High," it's a welcome departure from his calm, cool demeanor. The album ends appropriately with "Ocean Drive," a serene but somehow unsettling closer that encapsulates 21's appeal: the blunt force of his verses knock you over the head before his melodic hooks smooth you out -- but only for so long until he brings the pain again.

See Behind-the-Scenes Photos of 21 Savage at 2016 XXL Freshman Class Cover Shoot

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