i am > i was (Deluxe)

i am > i was (Deluxe)

With 21 Savage's second album, 2018’s i am > i was, the Atlanta rapper demonstrated a stylistic purview that extended beyond the catchy trap anthems he built his career on. Not that his style ever seemed limited—the brand of creeping gothic bangers he patented on his breakthrough Metro Boomin–produced mixtape, Savage Mode, felt distinctive when the project arrived in 2016. On 21’s studio debut, 2017’s Issa Album, he struck a less stylized, more autobiographical note while demonstrating his ability with crossover-ready hooks. With his follow-up, the rapper seemed to be aiming to make a more daring and auteurish statement while continuing to chart singles. It would be hard to argue that he didn’t succeed on both counts. 2018’s i am > i was turned out to be an excellent showcase for 21’s sophisticated writing and pop-minded abilities, as well as his rooting in deeper Southern rap tradition. Its lead single and opening track incorporated an inviting soul vocal sample that introduced a sleek, more cosmopolitan sound into his music. Its earwormy Q&A hook and verses juxtaposed the playful and harrowing, a potent combination that made it Savage’s biggest solo single to date. The rest of the project served to illustrate 21’s ability as an album artist, from choice of collaborators to stylistic scope. In a power move, his star-studded and stylistically diverse roster of guests—from Travis Scott to Childish Gambino to Project Pat—were uncredited. Creating a contrast with its slicker singles—see the mournful, flute-driven “can’t leave without it”—a collection of tracks on the album explore street-rap subgenres, such as the Memphis horrorcore tradition. The eerie, violent “monster” recalled early Three 6 Mafia, while the shout-along “a&t” quite literally interpolates one of their most explicit refrains. With 21’s morbid imagination, poker-faced humor, and inimitable charisma on full display, i am > i was felt like something more than an artist trying on different subgenres or gathering au courant producers around him to make himself seem interesting. It announced an artist with longevity—not afraid to take chances, with curational and lyrical abilities to match the biggest names in the rap game.

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