The Apocalyptic Trap Of Atlanta’s 21 Savage

David Turner reviews ‘Savage Mode’

“So now you back in the trap just that, trapped / Go on and marinate on that for a minute,” rapped Big Boi on Outkast’s 1998 masterpiece "Spottieottiedopaliscious." Back then, Big Boi was describing both the mindset that bounded some black people to their lot in life as well as actual physical drug spots. But now, in 2016, the phrase has become a genre unto itself — and, well, trap is fun.

Throughout the 2000s, trap was associated with Atlanta street rappers — Gucci Mane, T.I., Young Jeezy — but the last decade saw the style expand to include the energetic chirps of Migos and the psychedelic softness of Makonnen. The phrase even became twisted into its own electronic music genre that kept the 808s and bloated bass but stripped away the rap, except in notable exceptions like DJ Carnage’s Migos-assisted crossover hit "Bricks." And now the elastic term is being snapped backed onto another young face.

East Atlanta rapper 21 Savage rose up from the city last year to a recent national tour alongside soon-to-be-superstar Lil Uzi Vert. On Savage Mode, he joins forces with constantly-in-demand producer Metro Boomin, and their music makes Chief Keef at his most nihilistic sound hopeful. The stripped-down style is different for Metro, who has recently been known for getting trap sounds into the mainstream with the likes of Drake, Future, and Kanye. In only nine songs, 21 Savage presents one of the bleakest rap worldviews ever articulated. Every action — a sip of lean, a gunshot, or a trip to California, a world away from Atlanta — is given the same cold-pressed delivery. 21 Savage’s voice is steady, never accenting punchlines; even when recalling his childhood, he rattles off the memories like phonebook pages:

Seventh grade I got caught with a pistol, sent me to Pantherville

Eighth grade started playin’ football, then I was like fuck the field

Ninth grade I was knocking niggas out, nigga like Holyfield

Fast forward nigga, 2016 and I’m screaming fuck a deal

Metro Boomin and the other credited co-producers eschew any flourishes that might indicate that even an ounce of fun was had during the recording process in favor of eerily dry drums and ad-libs plopped on without reverb or echo. The album’s title track is nearly a remake of Future’s “Photo Copied” (which Metro Boomin co-produced), but where Future’s staccato rapping style gave that song some propulsion, 21 Savage’s version just lumbers. His deliberate style sometimes recalls early Three 6 Mafia, back when DJ Paul and Juicy J preferred haunted production — and frequent John Carpenter samples — that complimented the horror movie–indebted worldview they presented. Where those Memphis rappers incorporated the occult and horror pop-cultural reference to conduct fear, 21 Savage is closer to the early raw days of Chief Keef and Chicago Drill, where people were pulled into an unfiltered view of violence. But where Drill was sonically indebted to Southern producers like Lex Luger and Southside, Savage Mode is a tape that sonically matches the coldness of the lifestyle described on the record.

For an album released in the heart of summer, as people flood out into the streets for long days and humid nights, Savage Mode seems uninterested in any kind of communal revelry. It’s the season of rap meant to be blasted out of car windows, but Savage Mode’s mood is barren. Trap music has grown into its own aesthetic separate from rap, and Savage Mode is a hard-reset that washes away any of the colors the genre has articulated in the last couple of decades.