The raspy, menacing voice. Lyrics that exist in worlds of both luxury flexes and eerie horror-movie-like imagery. Flows that are stern, but bound to get stuck in your head. By this point, we all know who 21 Savage is.
However, looking back to when he started popping up on the radars of hip-hop fans around the world in 2016, it would have been impossible to predict his trajectory. See, he always had the potential of being a trap music staple, but no one ever expected the versatility he would come to show us. Now in 2023, it’s common knowledge that 21 Savage can flow on any beat, and even provide some food for thought amidst his ravenous frenzies. In order to track this evolution, we’ve harkened back to 5 pivotal moments through the Atlanta artist’s career that helped him develop into the jack of all rap trades he is today.
For many, ‘Red Opps’ acted as an introduction to 21 Savage. It has 808s that hit like mortars, and piano keys drenched in a sense of gloom. Savage’s refrain of “I’m on that slaughter gang shit, murder gang shit” is delivered in such a stoic fashion that it sends shivers down your spine. It’s the song that led many to his mixtape Free Guwop, and from there, the buzz surrounding this Atlanta prospect began.
‘Red Opps’ isn’t just important because it was a popular track but because it kickstarted what would be a massive 2016 for 21 Savage. Following Free Guwop was Savage Mode, a collaborative project with Metro Boomin that saw him hone in on the villainous tone of his music and continue to explode with popularity through songs like ‘No Heart’ and the Future-assisted ‘X’. He also appeared on the 2016 XXL Freshman List, rapping alongside Kodak Black, Denzel Curry, Lil Yachty, and Lil Uzi Vert in what would become one of the most iconic cyphers of all time. Not to mention, the internet had run rampant with the ‘Issa Knife’ meme, referencing a moment where 21 Savage explains his face tattoo in an interview with DJ Vlad. He was only at the beginning of his career, but 21 had essentially already reached mythical status.
‘Bank Account’ marks a slight style switch for 21 Savage. The production is a little more vibrant, contrasting the dark, muddy terrain he traversed in the past. Savage of course retains his ominous presence but amps up the energy throughout emphatic flows. It’s no surprise that this song has 6 platinum certifications to its name.
Not only was ‘Bank Account’ a hit, but a gateway into 21 Savage’s debut studio album Issa Album, which further displayed his versatility with rap-sung anthems like ‘FaceTime and ‘Dead People’’, while continuing to establish his hard-hitting signature style with cuts like ‘Money Convo’. From this point, it became clear that Savage wasn’t a one-trick pony, and was checking all the boxes needed to become a bonafide superstar.
For the rest of 21 Savage’s career, ‘a lot’ will stand tall as a permanent highlight. This is not only due to the simple fact that the song is great, but it’s because we got to learn more about the man behind the moniker. He showcases a side of himself that the public wasn’t privy to before, rapping about the adversity he has overcome in life over soulful production in a passionate way that sees him keeping up with J. Cole’s lyricism on feature duty.
Speaking to Complex about the song in 2020, Savage stated “This song means a lot to me because I was able to tell a story about everything I’ve been through and everything I’m going through now.” This vulnerability is a consistent theme throughout i am > i was, the album ‘a lot’ serves as the intro for. On this project, Savage expands the versatility he introduced us to with Issa Album while adding a sense of introspection to his lyrics. There are candid confessions about the complications of love on songs like ‘ball w/o you’, and moments of sincere gratitude on deep cuts like ‘letter 2 my momma’. In revealing more of himself to the world, 21 Savage went from being a mainstay in the trap scene to one of music’s true megastars, connecting with people through his honesty.
‘Glock In My Lap’
There is a chilling feeling to the opening pianos of ‘Glock In My Lap’. They are dense and dark, leading into what might be one of 21 Savage’s best bangers in his discography. The braggadocious raps are sinister as they cut through the mix. Metro Boomin’s production channels the eeriness of Memphis horrorcore and enhances it with bellowing 808s and a depth sound that could detonate any mosh pit.
‘Glock In My Lap’ was an instant highlight when 21 Savage and Metro Boomin’s Savage Mode II dropped. It harkened back to the style of this project’s predecessor, but its blockbuster-level ambience differentiated it from any of the releases that surrounded it. Savage Mode II serves as a testament to the collaborative chemistry he shares with many. It showcases the hair-raising atmosphere he’s able to create with Metro Boomin, but also his openness to switching it up alongside other vocalists, exemplified by the playful wittiness of a song like ‘Mr. Right Now’ with Drake. Even outside of his own work, he’s featured on over a dozen platinum-certified singles from a wide array of artists including Post Malone and Cardi B. 21 Savage has proven he can adapt to any type of style of song, and this continues to only amplify his stature in music today.
‘Call Me Revenge’
‘Call Me Revenge’ is the latest release from 21 Savage, created to accompany the release of the latest Call Of Duty video game, Modern Warfare 3. This follows 21 Savage becoming a playable operator in Call Of Duty Warzone. The track finds him spitting alongside the smooth melodies of the rapidly rising Houston-based prospect dv4d, reminding you that Savage is nearing veteran status as a staple in modern-day hip-hop.
When you reflect back on the release of ‘Red Opps’, it becomes clear how unpredictable the career of 21 Savage has been. He stormed onto the scene as a menacing trap artist, creating grimy, pulsating anthems. Versatility and open-book lyricism followed as he continued to sharpen his tools as a songcrafter. And by never letting go of his creative curiosity, he has been able to explore and adapt to a variety of sounds through massive collaborations. Now, he’s a part of one of gaming’s biggest franchises, further solidifying his position as a household name. If the timeline of his career so far is anything to judge the future by, it seems there are still a lot of bigger and wilder milestone moments to come. Until then, we can find comfort in the only inevitability regarding 21 Savage: the music continuing to slap.