In 2016, 21 Savage released the collaborative EP Savage Mode with Metro Boomin, and if it is remembered for anything, it was that of fetishizing its brutality. Metro’s dark beats and atmosphere made for the perfect match of 21 Savage’s cold, calculated delivery. Issa Album came the following year and sought to rewrite 21 Savage away from the evil territory towards something more mysterious, residing in a grey area. I Am > I Was is a sophomore album that’s a welcome step up in both musical quality and shapelessness. Because it is amorphous in its sound and honest with its intentions, I Am > I Was is Savage’s most moving body of work thus far. He isn’t rushing off in bold new directions, instead choosing to zero in on what people dig about him, making it easier to understand while sounding more expensive.
The title reads I Am Greater Than I Was, and it’s a bold statement that reflects the constantly, visibly evolving 21 Savage. Last year, he avoided brandishing bejeweled teeth while jamming out to one of his own songs in a car and, instead, released a documentary about financial literacy. That’s just one extreme example. But there’s no hint of regret that exists in this statement, or the album. Each character trait and action that 21 Savage exhibited in the past is a piece of what makes him who he is now. He builds off of yesterday’s profits and lessons to figure out what will happen in the future. Because of this, he’s better than before.
If he’s better, then the album is great. Issa Album often felt glued together artificially, the mark of a record label seeking to make sure that their new rap project manages to hit all of the necessary marks. There were street songs, there were songs for the ladies. Then there were the introspective ones that fit neither category. Not quite boring, but definitely not original. But for what it’s worth, the album was heavy with style. I Am > I Was shares its spiritual dividers with its predecessor, but the lines between each type of song feel much more transparent than before. The album flows with a tightness and cohesion that makes even its most disparate beats flow together like smooth river water, seemingly moving from anxiety-inducing chaos (“a&t”) to tenacious space-claiming bass hymns (“out for the night" and “gun smoke”) without so much as a snap of a finger. But it works, largely because of 21 Savage’s dominating tone and delivery, and makes things stick that may ordinarily not work.
Thematically, 21 Savage isn’t Nas. He’s not Lil Pump either. He rides his own aesthetic wave, talking plainly about doom and gloom in such a way that isn’t shocking but mundane on purpose. In his world, he gets aroused at gun smoke. His fascination with violence has long been a running theme in his music, but this time around it doesn’t have as wide of a space as it held previously. The cartoonish depictions of crime scenes and comic book style shootout bars have been toned down to quick vignettes of grotesque scenes. Without his usual crutch, 21 Savage leans more into introspective territory. “a lot” is the kind of album opener that’s common for other rappers who play into the whole "heavy is the head that holds the crown” spiel that they devote entire albums to, but when 21 Savage is the one offering his turn on the trials of fame, it sounds more sincere. “I rather be dead and broke than in jail and rich” he says, and it’s a telling statement on the mental standing of the 26-year-old rapper and millionaire. He sounds stressed, yet content. In a recent interview with the Breakfast Club, he revealed that if someone had a gun to his head, he wouldn’t beg for his life, instead telling them to “get on with it.” You can hear that tiredness on the first track of the album, and it only goes deeper from there.
Don’t get it twisted. I Am > I Was isn’t an album obsessed with boredom and sorrow. It’s like Issa Album in the best of ways – wide, varied, and, to a degree, adventurous. “1.5” features a tenacious, slightly off-kilter beat that Offset makes his own. “all my friends” follows and switches up the style tenfold, being a clear play for the charts, featuring Post Malone for a somber song about losing friends when the money comes. It’s earnest with its tired subject, but ultimately works because of the pre-established chemistry of the two artists. And then from there, the body flips again. “can’t leave without it” is a sexy, ominous beast with enough dark piano keys and flute runs to soundtrack a ten-hour marathon of noir films. It’s essentially a song about the tenets of the modern gangster, and Lil Baby and Gunna are in tow with album-standout verses. Bottling the three extravagant personalities on the same track without anyone stepping on another’s toes is a feat in itself.
If you missed whispering 21 Savage, he’s back again on “asmr” in quick glimpses. It’s a nice touch, something that makes the album feel even bigger than what it is. “ball w/o you” digs a little deeper than a regular breakup song for something that feels pointed and personal, like a flurry of subtweets at ex Amber Rose (he’s denied the song was about her). But flourishes like these are necessary extra touches that add flair to the familiar structure. It’s not groundbreaking on purpose. He’s showing that he has the capacity for it by zeroing in on what he already does well. This doesn’t detract from the overall package by making it feel expected – it actually enables the album to sound like a logical step forward, the necessary evolution to show that the best version of 21 Savage is the one that exists today.
Unlike Issa Album, the faults are few and far between, but they do exist. “a&t” is a club night anthem for fast movements and bouncing body parts. City Girls' music exists firmly in this atmosphere, but for 21 Savage it feels like he’s grasping at straws. His brooding flow is at odds with the frenetic atmosphere that the song brings. Similarly, “good day” is a tad bit much for the criminally bare aesthetic of 21 Savage, featuring Project Pat and ScHoolboy Q who deliver the unique charismatic inflections that make them who they are. In contrast, 21 Savage’s shrugging delivery doesn’t cut it.
Even when it strikes out, you can see and hear the intent. 21 Savage never said that he was perfect, nor is he pretending to be. I Am > I Was is nothing but a statement saying that who he is now is better than he was before. The music backs up this declaration of improvement, zeroing in on aesthetic choices showcased on his label debut while cutting down on some things and embellishing others. The overly violent shtick has been largely cut, replaced with a frequent tendency to journey inward and record the results. Because of this, I Am > I Was is a near masterpiece. 21 Savage revealed on this album that the best way to showcase improvement is to provide examples. What’s gifted here makes it clear that 21 Savage’s bold declaration is completely true.