The farther hip-hop goes, the more distance there is between the music and its source. Rappers now sell cologne, sneakers, beverages. They make pop songs with Top 40 artists in desperate attempts to get national radio play. They push gimmicks and emphasize their image to ingratiate themselves to certain audiences.
21 Savage doesn’t give a fuck about any of that. There are, of course, the prototypical rapper stories surrounding his burgeoning career – getting shot the day he turned 21, getting expelled from school in 7th grade for bringing a gat to class, going to jail at an early age – but those are but fragments of his whole story. He’s seen a lot of pain in his hometown of Decatur, Georgia, and the anguish that encloses his life is palpable in the music he makes. Paranoia plagues the songs he makes as bullets wiz by, hitting friends and enemies alike without bias.
There’s nothing pop about 21 Savage, but he’s quickly becoming one of the most popular rappers south of the Mason Dixon, so with his new Slaughter King mixtape out this week, now is a good time to introduce the uninformed to the young ATL rapper via a handpicked selection of his best songs to date.
Skirtt Skirtt (Prod. by Fukk 12)
On the intro to his debut project Slaughter Tape, 21 Savage paints the following image in just two bars: “Auntie hit the dope, say it make her fuckin’ jaw lock / Straight bullets hittin’ kids while they playin’ hopscotch.” That’s an entire world wrapped up in two lines – the drug trade, its close-up effects on family members, and the way it has a dangerous ripple effect in the neighborhoods where it’s conducted. Just like that, 21 Savage drops you square in the middle of the action.
One Foot (Prod. by Sonny Digital)
This might be one of the best beats Sonny Digital has ever made. You can’t listen to this song without reciting the curt “21!” adlib after it’s over. Even the hook (“I got one foot in, one foot out”) paired with the production lends itself to a jumprope game. Did Sonny sample a fucking music box for this or something?
Red Rag, Blue Rag (Prod. by Zaytoven)
It might help that Yung Booke and Freaky D$MG lace their verses with quick flows on this one, but 21 Savage colors in the margins when he talks about how he’s about to stop breathing after he pops these Percs. Over Zaytiggy’s melancholy strings, there is something tragic about the song and it’s overflowing gang references. It might not be pretty, but it is powerful.
Out The Bowl (Prod. by TrapMoneyBenny)
Key! is one of those guys that’s incredibly influential in Atlanta but not quite a national star in his own right yet. It’s almost never a bad idea to do a song with the guy, and combined with another excellent producer TrapMoneyBenny, 21 Savage is pushed out of his comfort zone to catchy results.
Wow (Prod. by Sonny Digital)
Every time I want to say the word “wow” I unconsciously recite the line Kanye West spit on “Last Call” – “You go to Jacob with 25 thou, I go with 25 hundred, wow.” 21 Savage’s “Wow” might supersede that reference in my lexicon now, because the hook is just him saying, “Wow, wow, wow, wow, wow.” He pulls up in a wow, and he pulls off in a wow. The power of this popular chorus structure – just repeating a word or phrase like a mantra – gives language an elastic feel, like when you were young and used to repeat a word a bunch of times until it stopped resembling said word and became completely detached from its original meaning. I wasn’t the only one who did that, right?