"People believe me, and they don't really believe a lot of people," says Atlanta rapper 21 Savage, who has recently made the leap from beloved mixtape emotion-spiller to radio hitmaker. "They feel like I'm telling the truth – 'cause I'm telling the truth. That's why a lot of people gravitate towards me: I'm a real nigga in a fake-ass industry."
Savage's debut full-length, Issa Album, released in early July, was a resounding success, debuting at Number Two. Self-produced single "Bank Roll" – a celebration of affluence goosed by the instantly memorable mantra, "I got 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 M's in my bank account" – landed at Number 33 on the Hot 100, marking 21 Savage's second blitz on the Top 40 in just eight months.
He's sitting in a conference room at Epic Records' offices in New York City with new girlfriend Amber Rose next to him in glittering aviators. Savage speaks softly, smokes a Newport and freely admits he is out of his element in New York: "Ain't nothing to do up here but spend money. Every building is a business. I ain't even seen a movie theater yet."
It's been less than three years since he released his debut single. Atlanta producers Sonny Digital and Metro Boomin (both known for their work with Future and Gucci Mane) helped encourage 21 Savage to try a career in hip-hop. Before that, he explains, "I was running around robbing niggas and shooting niggas and shit. I was just hanging out around a rapper that I knew on some niggas-be-wanting-street-cred type shit. He was introducing me to everybody. I met Sonny first, then Metro. They pushed me to rap."
On his 21st birthday, 21 Savage was hit six times in a shooting that killed his friend.
"[I was] just tryin' to to do something better with my life," he says about his rap career. "And it paid good."
On his records, 21 Savage raps like a man trying not to sweat, delivering laconic couplets in an arid, conversational tone. He doesn't care for tunefulness or modulation in volume. He never adds a new word if repetition or silence will do. Many of the beats provided to him by Metro Boomin are similarly severe, just one line of melody over jaw-breaking rhythms.
"A lot of times artists rap with a whole lot of words and metaphors – to simplify it and say all that you are trying to say in a few phrases is a gift," says Zaytoven, one of the most important Atlanta hip-hop producers of the last decade, and co-producer on two of Issa Album's tracks. "21 can come with the slow flow, the lazy flow, like he don't even be excited, but he's saying all the right things."
21 Savage's no-nonsense style on the Metro Boomin collaboration Savage Mode earned him a Gold certification. Epic Records passed up a chance to sign the rapper early on, but former label head L.A. Reid realized his mistake after its release.
"When I came into the [Epic] office [the second time] I'm like, 'Yo, you gotta pay an extra fee cause you ain't sign me in the beginning," 21 Savage says. Respected hip-hop figures lined up to give their approval: Drake shouted him out on Instagram, Jay Z referenced him on DJ Khaled's "Shining," super-producer Mike Will Made It featured him on Ransom 2 cut "Gucci on My."
But with fame comes critics, and despite the success of Issa Album, the detractors who disparage his work as "mumble rap" still irk 21 Savage.
"I don't feel like nobody who they say [is] mumble rap mumbles," he retorts. "They don't understand my slang or my accent. They don't know how to categorize it, 'cause it's art. They're just trying to bring it down."
Then there are the Instagram commenters who claim that all 21 Savage tracks are interchangeable. The rapper says parts of Issa Album serve as a direct refutation to them.
"I made sure I made certain songs just so people couldn't say every song sound the same," he asserts. At least two tracks on the new LP might be described as love songs, mostly uncharted territory for 21 Savage, and he sings on Issa Album for the first time. "I was sangin'," the rapper acknowledges. "That's what everybody else doin'. Shit. Might as well."
21 Savage is also explicitly political on his new record, addressing systemic racism and police brutality in addition to referencing Civil Rights icons like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. "Most of the time I just talk about me or what I experience," he acknowledges. "Now I be trying to talk about other things that other people can relate to."
"It's hard being black," he adds soberly. "I don't think people really understand how hard it is to be black. Especially when you coming from nothing. In the hood, there's already a lot of hate just amongst us black people. We killin' each other and everybody else killin' us too. We poor. And the world hates us.
"People always say I don't ever talk about that type of shit, then when I talk about that type of shit, they do everything in their power to not talk about that song," he continues. "They don't give me the credit. Fuck 'em."
He has resolved to stay above the fray and maintain the plain-spoken sincerity that has made him popular. "Even if nobody keeps it real with me," he declares, "just as long as I know in my heart I done kept it real with everybody, I can live with that. Even if I ain't the famous-est, the richest, the best: As long as I know I kept it real and didn't backstab nobody, I sleep good at night."