In the 1810 Caspar David Friedrich painting “Abbey in the Oakwood,” a group of monks carries a coffin through the snow into the crumbling ruins of a gothic abbey. Beyond the abbey, a grove of bald, gnarled oak trees basks in the dim sunlight. Death lingers, but not its fresh stench, only the sense of its infinitude. I still think of this beautiful, desolate painting every time I listen to 21 Savage and Metro Boomin’s 2016 Savage Mode, arguably the greatest collaborative rapper-producer project of the last decade. Metro’s production—stark, surreal, and often serene—had macabre orchestral sensibilities, with quivering flutes and synths made to sound like cursed woodwinds. These beats gave a new context for 21’s rare croak, slasher villain nihilism, and bleak personal history. Before he abruptly “retired” in 2018, Metro had ascended to the top of his profession by stripping down the maximalism of Lex Luger and using mainstream Atlanta trap as a laboratory for his studies in texture. For all of his triumphs, he never released anything as visionary and boldly atmospheric as Savage Mode.
With Savage Mode II, 21 and Metro have created a near-perfect sequel that revisits the moods of its predecessor while simultaneously carving out its own distinctive identity as tribute to the music they grew up on. Morgan Freeman’s over-the-top cinematic narration is not a one-off gimmick, but the connective tissue of the project. Though 21 takes time to celebrate his rise from long trips on MARTA to Rolls-Royce roadhead, and his refusal to wear any watch that cost less than $100,000, Savage Mode II is rooted in the same grim source material as SM1. On “My Dawg,” he remembers a botched pawnshop robbery that left his close friend Larry killed. On “RIP Luv,” he explores romantic fallouts and his desire for partnership that he laid out on “Feel It.” Similarly, Metro reprises many ideas from SM1 that flowed from his keen sense of negative space; on “Slidin,” he almost appears to pitch up the semi-iconic detuned loop of “No Heart,” and “Many Men” echoes the slow, glistening, arpeggiated synths that shaped SM1 songs like “Savage Mode” and “X.”
Savage Mode and Without Warning, 21 and Metro’s 2017 Halloween-themed mixtape with Offset, could be viewed as modern, high-definition updates on the unflinching blend of horrorcore and gangsta rap that Three 6 Mafia and Geto Boys pioneered 25 years ago. Savage Mode II hosts a significantly more open conversation with rap and R&B made before 21 and Metro came of age.
The album’s biggest flex wasn’t getting Morgan Freeman, but rather getting cover art from the Houston graphic design firm Pen & Pixel, famous for developing Cash Money and No Limit’s garish visual aesthetic. On the album’s sunnier tracks, 21 flows over twinkling, Whitney Houston-esque electric keyboard and uses Sade and TLC to paint sexual metaphors. “Many Men,” interpolates the the 2003 50 Cent song of the same name, and “Rich Nigga Shit” floats amidst a slow-motion, DJ Screw-indebted beat seemingly dipped in codeine. On the intrepid throwback “Steppin On Niggas,” 21 does a solid Eazy-E impersonation, and Metro repurposes Rodney O and Joe Cooley’s 1988 “Everlasting Bass”—a song that Three 6 happened to sample several times.
The most overt homage of Savage Mode II, though, is Metro’s outfit in the “Runnin” music video, in which he wears a Three 6 shirt and a hat that reads, “Make DJ Paul and Juicy J Three 6 Mafia Again.” This gesture encapsulates the difference between the two installments of Savage Mode, which now seems destined to go down as a one of rap’s all-time classic series. While SM1 was ineffable and mystic, Savage Mode II spells out its influences and its place in the canon of Southern rap.