Savage Mode

Savage Mode

“Young Savage, why you trappin' so hard? . . . Why you got a 12-car garage?” The chorus of “No Heart,” the signature track from Atlanta rapper 21 Savage and producer Metro Boomin’s breakthrough EP, Savage Mode, seems to evoke a tribunal grilling a defendant. In the plotline to the tape—and 21’s discography as a whole—it’s the perfect format to provide character exposition for 21 Savage and introduce new listeners to a fully formed new talent in the trap landscape. The answer to all the questions, qualified by more unprintable things, is simple: “I grew up in the streets without no heart.” Bleak, minimal, and unambiguous, the music and verses on Savage Mode evoke and explore this theme in a variety of ways. By this time, the 23-year-old Savage had workshopped his brutal, anti-emotive, and vocal-fry–dominated style on several self-released projects. By joining forces with Metro—then more established for his collaborations with Future, Young Thug, and others—the rapper not only gained a greater platform but found a collaborator whose like-minded attitude toward mood and pacing would help distinguish him from the ATL trap rank and file. Though it didn’t aim to disrupt any major formulas, Savage Mode stands as one of the most distinctive and influential trap releases of the late 2010s. The verses feature outlandish, violent one-liners that mix cartoonishness with gang realism—low on metaphor, high on harrowing imagery and puerile punchlines. The production generally eschews melody in favor of small, gnarled motifs; every sound is textured to seem distressed and broken. Several tracks move outside of clear tonality and approach the realm of pure ambient noise (see “Bad Guy”). For all the seriousness of the attendant subject matter, which reflects the ins and outs of a hard-knock street upbringing, there is something playful—and oddly accessible—about these songs, almost without exception. 21’s contrasts between different rap modes of address—threatening, gloating, mourning, detailing a sexual or brutal act—combine with his deadpan, matter-of-fact delivery to create couplets that are as funny as they are disquieting (rhyming “cutting off your hands” with “don’t need no advance,” for instance). On the album's finest songs, 21 patiently shifts between rhythmic cadences so catchy that every new verse sounds like it could be a hook. Savage Mode also offers an excellent time capsule of two burgeoning talents who had something to prove and were working to do it. While 21’s style would evolve to be even more restrained—representing an ominous cool-headedness—here he sounds hungry and more unhinged, ready to change approaches rather than risk a dull moment. Spacious to the point of being desolate, Metro’s beats provide a backdrop that throws these shifts into relief and allows every line to land and stick. Savage Mode sounds even more impressive and imaginative upon reexamination, knowing how street rap would develop in its wake, than it did during its moment.

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