21 Savage Issa Album

[Slaughter Gang; 2017]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U_IbIMUbh-k
Others: 22 Savage, Playboi Carti, Ugly God

Issa Album is post-everything. It’s post-fame: stylistically, 21 Savage was something of a blank slate with regards to the approach he might affect for a major-label debut; the album is marked in equal measure with the fingerprints of A&Rs and moments of indulgence in the styles and influences of artists that 21 Savage can now call his contemporaries (can you imagine “FaceTime” existing in a world where 21’s bizarre flirtations with Drake never occurred?). To detractors, it’s post-rap: the age divide is one of modern rap’s strangest marketing developments, and 21 Savage is something of a poster child for the so-called “mumble rap” against which the genre’s conservative wing may identify themselves. Most importantly, it’s post-Savage Mode; the project had expectations and obligations, all lying in the shadow of the dreaded sophomore slump, dire as ever in an era of unprecedented musical disposability.

21 Savage rose to the challenge. He’s in a curious position; in the era of 360 deals and always-on marketing by way of social media, the line between artistic exploration and label strategizing has become impossibly blurred. Outside of a few obvious iconoclasts, few are cut out for the constant lifestyle broadcasting that’s part and parcel of contemporary rap stardom — a gap that record labels and advertising budgets are only too happy to fill in. The ambiguity is perfectly encapsulated in the album’s title; Issa Album may be the first album born of a meme and is certainly the most visible. Did 21 Savage appreciate the humor in the virality of his explanation of the knife tattoo on his forehead, or was the title an outside suggestion? Similarly, are we to interpret the album’s artwork — the greatest pivot imaginable from the image upon which his fame is built — on 21’s desire to set the record straight on his personality or an Epic Records employee’s plan for broadening their artist’s audience? Moreover, does it matter? It would certainly be reasonable to posit that the proper response to all-encompassing branding is to trust only what comes from the artist’s mouth (i.e., the raps) and discard everything else.

Fortunately, the actual music of Issa Album leaves little reason to dwell on the album’s packaging. While 21 Savage spent the formative years of his come-up doing the same stylistic dabbling as any developing artist, last year’s Savage Mode (as well as his most successful singles before it) adopted dead-eyed monotony as something of a defining feature. It was nihilism rap; frighteningly remorseless and consistent with the utterly bleak life story that accompanied virtually all press coverage of 21’s early career. The resultant album was remarkable, but showed all the signs of a rapper soon to be pigeonholed and subsequently forgotten. Instead, Issa Album strikes a delicate and welcome balance, enormously broadening 21’s artistic horizons without venturing beyond recognizability. Sure, his expanding perspective at times fits neatly into the archetypes of street rap (listeners’ endless voyeuristic fascination with the rehabilitation of the once-struggling makes hooks like “Numb the pain with the money (16x)” practically platitudes), but the overall effect is to mold the damaged monster of Savage Mode into someone who can both reflect upon his past and rejoice in the new course his life has set since then.

The result is an artistic identity that is vastly more fleshed-out than what we’d previously been presented, an answer to the crucial question of whether 21 Savage was able to integrate even a single contrasting style into his well-defined identity. Issa Album presents endless paths for investigation and further development; more importantly still, it’s varied enough that the album itself can’t even be distilled into a single sound susceptible to re-hashing. The spectre of label micromanagement is ever-present over the rap game, yet the 21 Savage of Issa Album is more than enough to make me not just confident, but also hopeful that we’re seeing the rapid and unadulterated development of a rap talent that has much more to share. As a winking reassurance, the album concludes with the accurately-titled “7 Min Freestyle,” a jarring turn from the slick sequencing of the preceding 13 tracks that, to say the least, no one was asking for. Despite expectations, it’s an utter joy to listen to — a simple display of what 21 Savage sounds like when he’s having fun rapping.

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