Before even getting stuck into listening through 21 Savage‘s Issa Album, the initial inkling of the release could be gleaned from the album’s inoffensive, almost playful artwork. In fact, going from having a huge knife scything jaggedly through a blood clot amidst intense red and black imagery to a cartoon of himself in front of a pastel coral background and quaint little palm trees is a pretty good visual representation of the change in direction between his two most recent projects. On Issa Album, the Savage has been tamed.
The Atlanta rapper’s last project, Savage Mode started with “No Advance.” His first bar on the project found him “smashing a stripper in a hotel with his chains on,” over a dreary beat that foreshadows the murderous sonics of his breakthrough EP. Conversely, Issa Album opens with “Famous.” It features genteel piano stabs courtesy of Zaytoven and Metro Boomin that instantly sets a much more light-hearted tone despite Savage not softening up lyrically, where he rails off some semi-solid “rags to riches” bars. The combination is downright chalk and cheese, instantly making you want to skip the very first track on the album rather than get lost in woozy, Xannied-out beats and downright malevolent 21 Savage we’ve become accustomed to in recent times.
Prior to the album, 21 dropped “All The Smoke.” Its video is a total horrorshow; 21 playing his role as the super-villain, sat on some bleachers, spitting venom about whipping up work and shooting people in the face whilst some murderer runs through hazy woodlands terrifying unsuspecting campers. It visualized the way Savage’s music is at its most effective and enjoyable: scaring the shit out of you while simultaneously sounding hard as fuck. It’s what Issa Album would have sounded like if it was, you know, better.
The following track does have elements of what 21 does best, where he’s heard reveling in riches and angst equally, on the (surprisingly) self-produced “Bank Account.” It’s one of the instrumental highlights of the album, containing the archetypal booming trap beat alongside a sample of Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson’s serene “Flashbulbs,” which Travis Scott also sampled on “Oh My Dis Side.” “Bank Account” has the album’s most basic, yet most effective hook, “I got 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 M’s / In my bank account” which ultimately makes it one of the most enjoyable tracks from the LP.
Alongside “Bank Account,” the other stand-out track is “Nothin New,” which finds a much less self-centered Savage hitting all the right notes, equipped with some scathing social critique to boot. The lyrics are devastating, and find the rapper opening himself up far more than we’ve been accustomed to. He raps with brutal honesty about the plight of young black men in America, “Shit getting outrageous / Treat us like slaves then they lock us up in cages / Young, black, poor ain’t had a father since a baby / Why you think we skip school to hang out on the pavements?” It’s a cutting verdict from a man who has really lived through what he’s rapping about, unlike some of his peers.
Yet the whole way through Issa Album, we get a mish-mash of sonic styles that don’t quite gel in either narrative or approach. I think I speak for most people when I say I want 21 Savage to make my stomach lurch over strung-out beats – not croon about getting “drunk all weekend” with his boo on “FaceTime.” It’s evident he’s trying to open himself up to a wider audience, but by moving away from his gravel-toned cadence to heavily auto-tuning himself over light-hearted instrumentals, the experimentation falls flat.
The softer touch would’ve been refreshing if he could pull it off, but it’s just not endearing coming from 21. How can you go from “being in his feelings” with his girl on the Wheezy-produced “Special” to persistently degrading homophobia by ‘calling out’ “faggots? 21 claims to be the “realest rapper alive,” but it’s almost like he has to cover up his insecurities in opening up about being in love with Amber Rose by lambasting his peers. While he attempts to replicate the way in which his two ATL affiliates in Young Thug and Future have been so successful in their drug-addled love-yearning, 21 doesn’t express it as clinically or cooly as his peers.
Then there’s points where he’s completely nonsensical. On final track “7 Minute Freestyle” he’s unable to respect “n*ggas with cornrows”… like, what? Then there’s “And I’m ballin like Nowitzki, I get head like Lewinsky,” which doesn’t make much sense even if those rhymes are a part of a so-called “freestyle.” Alongside unrefined, filler bars like these, there’s some pretty contempt-filled lines that seem to suggest the wealth has got to his head. “I be Gucci’d down / You be wearing Lacoste’s and shit” on “Bank Account” and “Peon ass niggas / Levis and adidas ass niggas” on “Money Convo” are hilarious in their ridiculousness, yet definitely not the best way to win new fans from similar social demographics that he’s managed to work his way up from. While flaunting your lavish lifestyle is an essential part of rap, 21 comes across a bit too bougie with bars like this.
Issa Album is propped up by some very solid production from the best in the game. Pierre Bourne (that Pierre responsible for Playboi Carti’s best beats,) joins twinkling piano additions from Zaytoven, emotional-Trap connoisseur Wheezy, the slick Southside, the West Coast’s finest DJ Mustard and, of course, Savage Mode collaborator Metro Boomin. But while Savage has always been one to go it alone, he’d be lost without all the undoubted wizardry on the buttons.
Issa Album is a lot of fun, but ultimately, issa miss.
For more of our album reviews, read how JAY-Z’s ‘4:44’ proves how vulnerability provides the best art right here.