“I can’t help that I’m a street nigga / I had to get some money / I watched my momma struggle / I jumped off the porch / I had to use my muscle,” 21 Savage raps mournfully on “Lord Forgive.” Over a decade since T.I.'s Trap Muzik and Young Jeezy’s Trap or Die, 21 Savage is bringing his bleak worldview to a genre that has moved further and further away from dire depictions of street life. The last few years have seen the rise of Atlanta rappers like Migos and Young Thug, known more for their personal aesthetics and styles rather than depictions of the lives they describe in their songs. But this young East Atlanta MC foregoes anything that luxurious and instead pulls listeners through the tales of violence and peril that he experienced before he turned to rap.
Atlanta is often known for rappers who make it big through the strip club industrial complex or (potential) pop songs, but 21’s music lacks the sheen for either route. “Wow,” a track from his December 2015 tape Slaughter King, is memorable for its unrelenting blunt force production along with 21’s lyrics (“Ran off with your money, said I’d be right back”). His music recalls the post-failed crossover attempts of Gucci Mane (Trap God) that moved away from sonically diverse production as his style and beat selection became darker and more monotonous. 21’s music offers no hints of crossovers, rapping over an R&B hook, or dabbling in EDM; this is who he is and he isn’t interested in changing.
The frigidity of 21 Savage’s songs opposes another Atlanta trap rapper, YFN Lucci, whose music is awash with hopeful optimism. Wish Me Well 2, released in late February, finds Lucci speaking of day-to-day street affairs and struggles, but he's keeping his head up amid it all. Where many rappers offer that glimmer of hope to close out a project, Lucci fills each track with warmth, even in desperate times. On the tape’s closer, “Letter to Lucci,” he raps with conviction about accomplishing his dreams, no matter who might try to shut them down or stand in his way. Where the sour keys and brittle drumrolls from Sonny Digital and Fukk 12 heighten the tension of 21’s music, Lucci is backed by lush keys from producer OG Parker that score Lucci’s palpable sense of relief, as on “Talk That Shit”: “I do not like the fact that they hated / They hated the fact I escaped it / Found me a route that led me to paper.” Akin to how 21’s talk of grievous bodily harm and certain doom pervades every bar and hook, Lucci’s optimism seeps into every track here, discernible each time he lifts his voice to sing.
On March 30, 21 Savage performed at the Brooklyn DIY venue Aviv after his show at Manhattan’s Webster Hall was canceled a few days prior. 21 took the stage that evening with barely a flash of excitement on his face. During the 20-odd-minute set, he let the backing track carry songs and only accented them with a few scattered ad libs. The MC’s low energy was dramatically offset by the young crowd, who yelled and moshed along with each track he performed. Without an official single to 21's name, the crowd nevertheless reacted to “Dirty K” and “Red Opps” as if they were platinum hits.
A decade ago, the term trap wasn’t so loosely applied to music as a genre tag, but since then Atlanta rappers like T.I., Young Jeezy, and Gucci Mane have helped establish the ethos behind the musical style. Music that was devoted to tales of small-time neighborhood drug dealers and created with little thought of appealing beyond the streets found success. The first wave of trap rappers turned pop and found new, less drug-fueled lanes for their music. YFN Lucci and 21 Savage might eventually have that opportunity, but right now their music succeeds without such concessions.