21 Savage was recently taken into custody by ICE officials for overstaying his visa after having been born in the UK and moving here with his family when he was seven years old. Lost among the turbulence, however, is Savage’s new album, i am > i was, which released shortly before the new year. Instead of speculating on his citizenship — which you can read about —, let’s take a closer look at what 21 Savage has to offer to America.
Still a relatively new artist, 21 Savage debuted his Slaughter Tape mixtape in 2016 before an onslaught of releases in 2017 with Issa Album and Without Warning which were both were met with slightly better than lukewarm reviews. But i am > i was sees Savage coming into his own with more poignant lyrics in an album lush with heavyweight features while Savage still holds his own.
I am > i was lacks continuity at times while Savage battles inner dissonance between his former criminal tendencies and his reality as a father. Throughout the album we see him toeing the line between the family man he wants to be for his children and the fast life of a rapper entering stardom. With that said, he hits more often than not.
21 Savage sets the tone with the luscious soul sampled track “a lot.” Savage has come to terms with his station in life and with it a new sense of perspective as he tries to make music with denser meaning: “I’d rather be broke in jail than be dead and rich.” J. Cole comes in, remarking on Savage making music with his kids in the studio. By combining a warm, soulful beat and earnest lyrics, we get the sense we’re dealing with an upfront guy.
“Break da law” furthers his message as Savage reflects on his criminal past. The production is harsh and paranoid before dropping into something more mysterious — Savage brags about setting up his family and friends with money when they are released from prison. He repeats the phrase “Me and my dawgs break laws (Laws)/21 gang 'til I fall (Fall)” at the outro, confirming to listeners that while he’s trying to turn the page on his former life, he is still that man.
Right at an opportune moment to step back over the line into the morals he expressed in “alot,” we get to “a&t.” It’s hard to tell if this is Savage reaffirming his struggles to be that family man, but regardless, the beat is obnoxious, provocative and annoying.
Savage goes on to share his struggles getting close with women in “out for the night” as he references Drake’s track “In my feelings” with the line “I was in my feelings, now it's, ‘Fuck Kiki.’” While Drake adores this ‘girl,’ 21 Savage is over those feelings, and even more, sick of her all together. His seediness here finally crumbles when we get a hint of the 21 Savage from the opener “alot” with his track with Post Malone, “all my friends.”
Both Post and 21 remark on the friends they’ve lost through the fame and money, but in reality they better understand who’s real and who’s fake. Savage replays this notion with Malone throughout the track with his lines “Lost a couple friends, I ain't even really mad though (On God)/ I ain't even really mad though (21)/ Hard to tell the real from fake.”
21 Savage ramps up his vulnerability in the wisdom-packed track, “ball w/o you,” where it feels like Savage can no longer manage holding up his homemade shield of depravity. “Out for the night’s” feelings of “Fuck Kiki” suddenly become obvious defense mechanisms he had for a girl who he thought had his back. While Savage claims he would’ve done anything for this girl — “When it came to havin' your back, I'm so real/ I prolly would've gave you my spine.”
This girl had nothing in return for him as he describes with the lines: “Thought you had my back/ You let me fall.” It returns to the theme of Savage coming to terms with what’s important in his life, remarking that love is meaningless without loyalty: “See loyalty is a action/ You can love or hate me and still have my back.”
While “ball w/o you” is the peak in Savage’s morality throughout the album, he nears the close of the album with two tracks, in “monster” and “letter 2 my momma,” which cement him as one of the more introspective rappers today.
As much a Childish Gambino track as it is 21 Savage, “monster” pairs a catchy, Gambino-esque beat with two significant figures in America who understand the monster that “power, the money, and the fame” can make. The pitched up vocals that open the track repeating that refrain give the feeling of someone who is much less glad to be in that position of power, but more paranoid and surrenderous to the person they fight to not be.
“letter 2 my momma” caps the warm feelings that 21 Savage flirts with throughout i am > i was. Similar to Kanye West’s “Hey Mama” from Late Registration, Savage remarks on his mistakes and how grateful he is to have a mother who stuck by him. He opens up to his blunders, remarking that he “did some things when I was young that broke your heart.” Even then, he’s thanks his mom for sticking by him while Savage still looks at her as the most important woman in his life: “You the only woman I'd give some vows to.”
21 Savage comes off more impressive and wise than ever with i am > i was. Perhaps representative of his station in life, i am > i was still slips up at times, but never fails to return all the while. While a good project, I don’t think this is the best work we’re going to see from 21 Savage.