21 Savage is getting better. It’s right there, in in the title of his new album: i am > i was. The sentiment subsumes his verses and runs over his punchlines. Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph is wealthier, funnier and more famous than he’s ever been. If he’s not one of the best lyricists in hip-hop already, with every release he’s inching closer to that reality.
Savage emerged from Atlanta with a deadpan delivery that belied the ultraviolent menace and hyper-realistic storytelling in his lyrics. There were memes — “Issa knife” — that seemed willed into existence to add a semblance of levity to what was an all killer, no filler approach to rapping. Just a few short years later, it’s clear that 21 was always in on the joke.
That’s what makes the greater than sign sitting in the middle of his album feels like it’s weighing the project down. The actual title of 21 Savage’s new album could be, i am ≥ i was. For 51 minutes, his latest project compresses the most commercially viable, artistically ambitious and viral moments of Savage’s 2018 into an easily digestible package, but it doesn’t always maximize Savage’s strengths.
The album i am > i was unfolds like a study guide for new listeners, more used to hearing Savage as a featured element of a track instead of its lead artist. “All my friends” is the spiritual successor to Post Malone and 21’s 7x platinum, “rockstar.” The elusive and enigmatic Childish Gambino delivers a glorious verse on “Monster” and thus returns the favor for Savage lending his adlibs to “This Is America.” Yung Miami of City Girls carries “a&t” to such an extent it feels like a quick, albeit awkward gamut to stumble upon a new “In My Feelings.” The drawback of this method is that, at pivotal moments, 21 can feel like a featured artist on his own project. Take the intro track “a lot.” Over a sample of the The Fuzz’s 1971 song “I Love You For All Seasons,” J. Cole decides to show more dexterity, passion and wit than he displayed on the entirety of his own KOD earlier this year. His voice is at home over the dusty sample, waxing philosophical about the mysterious “they” that “fucked up” Markelle Fultz’s shot and sends condescending, but probably much-needed prayers to the recently incarcerated 6ix9ine.
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It’s that ceding the tracklist to guests, though, that means i am > i was rewards attentive listening. The album savvily follows the unlisted featured trend used by artists like Travis Scott on his most recent Astroworld — who, according to 21, is supposed to be turning in a verse at an undetermined date. Unexpected guests like Schoolboy Q and Project Pat appear right when the album needs them most. Childish Gambino’s “monster” verse, buried toward the end of the project, is his best musical output of the year. There is a sense that i am > i was is Savage testing how well others can exist in the dark and insular world he’s mainly inhabited by himself, on past projects like Savage Mode and Issa.
Shayaa’s humanizing qualities, namely his comedic timing, knack for blunt punchlines and bizarre non-sequiturs help build a more well-rounded portrait of Savage outside of the character he’s constructed. Early on in the album, he manages to threaten “your buddy, your goldfish and dog” with a chopper. A song later he claims a girl wears Fashion Nova, because she gets it for free before spitting “She at home, but her Instagram location the beach.” As if that line wasn’t cruel enough, he makes sure to let listeners know “she at home, bro” in the next bar to emphasize the dig. At one point 21 compares his pockets to Cheez-Its, while claiming he’ll “run off with your money” like disgraced N.W.A. manager Jerry Heller.
Savage even indulges the various memes that seem to be generated anytime he releases a new song. He continues the 12 car garage obsession started on “No Heart” (“Why you got a 12 car garage?”), extended on “Rockstar” (They like, “Savage, why you got a twelve car garage / And you only got six cars?”), bringing it up once more on “all my friends” (“Why you got a 12 car garage? (Why?) / ‘Cause I bought six new cars (No lie)”). On “asmr,” Savage doubles down on the whispering that made his turn on Metro Boomin’s “Don’t Come Out the House” so electric and popular.
If there is a sense that the early edge of Savage’s metaphorical knife has been blunted, he makes up for it by stretching the boundaries of his style. Greater doesn’t always mean better, but thankfully Savage doesn’t provide anything lesser on i am > i was. Instead, he delivers something that hints at the new, while flirting with the old. He brought his whole crew with him to do so.