Favorite Tracks: “Runnin,” “Glock In My Lap,” “Many Men,” “Steppin”
In between the opening tracks of SAVAGE MODE II, living legend and “the voice I hear when I think about God” Morgan Freeman asks the listener if things are better or worse the second time around. For Metro Boomin and 21 Savage, that answer is an unequivocal yes; SAVAGE MODE II is a knockout sequel, improving on the 2016 original in nearly every way. Metro lavishes the project with his signature trap stylings, elevated as usual above the crowded field with intelligent references, interesting textures, and some of the same appealing horror movie motifs that defined SAVAGE MODE and 2018’s WITHOUT WARNING. 21 hits these instrumentals in stride, showcasing his steady, impressive upward trajectory as a rapper across the most varied production of his career. A genius throwback album cover by Houston’s Pen & Pixel Graphics and delightful narrative structure provided by Freeman solidify the album as an event, one that succeeds as a sequel and on its own merits.
The most impressive element of SAVAGE MODE II is that it represents another step in 21 Savage’s ascent to an honest-to-God solid rapper. Rap as a genre sees a lot of artists come in and depart the spotlight with roughly the same level of ability, scaffolding their original skills and tricks with more expensive features and production as their profile builds. Think Migos’ triplet flows, once so exciting that they started a flood of copycats. In 2020, I’ve heard every variation of Quavo’s shtick, to the point I instinctively skip his features. Or take my beloved Westside Gunn, who for all his qualities is still rapping the same gun sounds and coke bars as he was on his opus FLYGOD. Artistic and technical growth are rarer than you might think, which is why it’s genuinely shocking that 21 Savage of all people is improving so clearly from project to project.
It completely escapes me why the first SAVAGE MODE is so revered amongst trap fans. Four years ago 21 was a raw product of the Atlanta streets, seemingly rapping for lack of a better outlet. His flow barely changes across 32 minutes that feel like an hour, recycling his wooden, emotionless cadence over atmospheric but samey beats from Metro. The only instances that have much of a musical pulse are “Bad Guy” and “Mad High,” and it doesn’t take a discerning listener to realize these songs share the exact same repetitive chorus down to the “A’ and “I” rhyme. Hits like “No Heart” and “X” have nothing going for them to my ears save a couple funny lines that are easy to miss amid the unrelenting bleakness. Contrast this with the double-time athleticism of SAVAGE MODE II’s “Many Men,” or the fascinating way 21 catches up to the beat on “My Dawg.” Where Savage once had one speed and one sound, he now boasts an array of flows and a comfort level across a much wider variety of sounds and subjects. Crucially, each release is an improvement on the last, and makes the wait to see what 21 does next full of anticipation.
Metro Boomin steps his game up with the quality production he’s known for, but delivers less frequently than his reputation would suggest. Past throwaway collaborations with Nav and Big Sean water down the special nature of producer/rapper join project, especially while truly exciting team-ups with the likes of Young Thug sit on the shelf. A couple years in quasi-retirement have reinvigorated trap’s biggest name, and he gives the much improved Savage a diverse and exciting palette to rap over. Opening bangers “Runnin” and “Glock In My Lap,” the latter from a three-headed monster of trap royalty in Southside, Honorable C.N.O.T.E. and Metro, are classic sinister Savage material elevated. “Many Men” is an excellent 50 Cent interpolation that doesn’t lean too heavily on the source material while still achieving the cold, mournful tone of the original. The Eazy-E homage “Steppin” comes out of left field to call back to ’80s hits complete with nostalgic record scratching. He even manages to roll some beauty in with the heat, slowing things down towards the end with two slow jams full of soft keys that 21 nails, demonstrating his increased comfort sharing his emotions and struggle to great effect. Not every moment sticks the landing like this; a hilarious Freeman interlude about the difference between snitches and rats is immediately undercut by Savage’s chorus declaring his intent to treat both exactly the same (spoiler: they get whacked). While 21 is undoubtedly a better writer now, his lines can still be clumsy and his punchlines underwritten. He didn’t quite retain the unique funny-yet-snarling one-liners from I AM > I WAS. I also hoped for a couple more features on a project like this. Drake and Young Thug are fine, if predictable, except for a gross and baffling Drake line about dating an underaged SZA, which furthers his extremely suspect record with young girls. Blood cousin Young Nudy turns in a strong effort, but it would’ve been nice to have a little more variety to go with the increased budget. There’s nothing here that lands like the surprise of Childish Gambino on “monster” or ScHoolboy Q and Project Pat on “good day.”
SAVAGE MODE II makes good on its billing as a sequel. It’s bigger, better, and the players involved have much to show for the work they’ve invested in the intervening years. We should all hope to hear Morgan Freeman grace more tracks with rappers as a result of his work here.