21 Savage Stays Inside the Trap
    • TUESDAY, JULY 11, 2017

    • Posted by: Gus Mirabella

    Last night I dreamt that two giant robots were fighting. One was wearing a cowboy hat and held onto a red solo cup. The other wore a blinding amount of jewelry and sipped on a cup composed of white styrofoam. The contents of each cup was not immediately evident. The robots fought like Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, each striking the other with a mechanical form. After about three and a half minutes, the cowboy fell, exposing the remains of some weak domestic beer. A minute or so later, after finishing off his own cup, the other robot fell on his back. The Battle of Homogeny was over, and no one won.

    I don't like to read into dreams, but I couldn't help but take away a few things from this one. Mainstream country and trap music are the kings of homogeny. Within each respective subgenre, it is rare to deviate in structure or content. There are drinking games to the tune of "take a drink every time beer or pickup trucks are mentioned" because the lyrics are so frequently repeated by all artists/corporately designed bots that represent the genre. Arguably, the only thing more boring than the lyrics is the music itself, which is also excruciatingly repetitive.

    Trap music is the polar opposite in content, but there are striking overlaps. The bass driven, sprinkler hi-hat clad beats are as formulaic as can be, and the flows are equally generic. The average trap song tends to discuss illicit activities such as drug dealing, gang-banging and regular banging, as well as parading the respective trap artist's lavish lifestyle. Shoutout to Young Thug, who recently combined the two subgenres on his "country-trap" album Beautiful Thugger Girls. The thing about Young Thug is, at least he has his own voice! If Young Thug is featured on a track (he is featured on many, many tracks), it is clear the moment he opens his mouth. He isn't the only trapper with his own genuine sound, but they are few and far between.

    This is all to say, homogeny is inevitable in essentially all forms of mainstream music. Look at pop music—it's almost entirely produced by the same group of reclusive Scandinavian men, and expressed through corporate entities disguised as artists. And although much of the Top 10 would run scared from the abrasive content of trap music, they are essentially the same thing. It is formulaic production based purely on what sells, which is why people like Lil' Yachty or Lil' Uzi Vert possess such illustrious careers despite their evident lack of talent. They simply fit the part right now.

    Hip-hop is exciting because it's still a relatively young genre, and accordingly, there is still room for growth. Trap music will not be the face of hip-hop forever, which brings to mind the question of "who and what will survive? What trap acts will be around in five or ten years?" I honestly don't think many big trappers will be, but 21 Savage….well, that's a tough one. At just 24 years of age, the Atlanta-based Savage seems different. Last week, he did a radio interview with Los Angeles' REAL 92.3, where he unveiled some interesting things that really made him stand out.

    He unveiled that his forthcoming album, Issa Album, was to feature no features. Look at any trap record—they ALL have features. He also doesn't smoke marijuana, which is a bit strange for a hip-hop star (he is, however, far from straight edge). He also hates promotion, and accordingly did little to promote Issa Album. Having released a song titled "Issa" with Drake and Young Thug in May, it stands to reason that 21 would have put "Issa" on Issa Album. But no, according to him, that's in the past. There is no single from the album, and 21 says that he will let the public decide what works and then release one.

    All of these idiosyncrasies make 21 Savage, at least in my mind, very appealing. He seems unconcerned with convention in trap music or the music world, at large. But then there is the issue of his music, which is as homogenous as possible. Issa Album is just a few minutes short of a full hour, and it realistically could contain just one 57-minute track with slight deviation every few minutes. The production work was performed by a series of hip-hop's hottest, from Metro Boomin to Southside, among others. There isn't a bad beat on the record, but few stand out. DJ Mustard and Twice as Nice's contribution, "FaceTime," is really cool beat backed by a super filtered vocal sample. Metro Boomin's work on "Thug Life" is also excellent, as is his somewhat spooky "7 Min Freestyle" beat. Savage himself produced "Bank Account," which in and of itself is pretty cool. Despite it's consistent quality, the production wholeheartedly lacks any real distinction. But hey, it's not the producer's job to carry an album—that's on the artist.

    With this in mind, it is really difficult to determine how good a job 21 did with Issa Album. His full-length debut feels a tad more somber than last year's Savage Mode, the collaborative EP made exclusively with Metro Boomin. He comes through on many tracks, delivering a detailed account of his cold-blooded qualities and his ascension to lavishness. One's ability to sell dope and murder are commonplace topics in the trap world, as is bragging about newfound wealth. There's absolutely nothing new as far as content goes, but he consistently does the trap schtick pretty well. Every song on Issa Album is highly listenable, as Savage's sullen flow fits the slow tempo beats. That said, few tracks actually stand out. It is an incredibly homogenized sound with absolutely zero risks evidently taken. The reason for this, ironically enough, was actually a risk 21 Savage took: having zero features. Every track, with the exception of Young Thug's brief intro on "Whole Lot," consists of 21 performing every part. Considering that he rarely switches his flow or inflection, basically all parts sound the same. And his vocabulary is relatively quite small. On the final track, the seven minute long "7 Min Freestyle," 21 says "21" 60 times, including at the end of 47 consecutive lines. Essentially, if you're aren't into the first few minutes of Issa Album, just give up.

    Another challenging thing about this album is that it contradicts a lot of what 21 seems to represent. He presents himself as pretty individualistic, avoiding a lot of typical acts like features and marijuana consumption. Savage stated he was completely alone on Issa Album, but it is not technically true--Young Thug is on the record. Speaking to the latter, on "Bad Business" and "Baby Girl" he explicitly references that he smokes. It calls into question the legitimacy of the hard, gangster shit he so readily brags about. In the same 92.3 interview, he supported Jay-Z calling out his generation of rappers for being fake, but openly contradicting yourself is being fake, too, Savage! It may be nitpicking, but it just makes the words a bit harder to believe.

    All that said, Issa Album is very accessible if you are down with that same old trap sound. While the content of his lyrics can be quite aggressive, his delivery is far from it. Basically every song has the same tone and inflection, and is quite well done. On "Special" and "Nothing New," the content is not about 21's wealth, killer tendencies or sexual prowess, making them notable for that reason alone. "Special" is a really sappy, genuine love song, while "Nothing New" is about the societal afflictions of the hood. But the consistent lack of diversity in content and sound throughout the album outweighs the insignificant deviation of these two tracks.

    Overall, Issa Album is a collection of by-the-book trap songs by a really good, young trap artist. Most complaints about this record are more with trap music as a genre than with 21 Savage himself. The homogenous sound may be disappointing, but we really didn't have much of a reason to expect otherwise. Considering this is his first actual record, there is reason to believe that he has room to grow. He made a trap album, and as far as trap albums go, it's quite good. But relative to music at large, Issa Album is just eh. Where he goes from here remains to be seen, but considering he made an incredibly cohesive, albeit completely conventional addition to trap music in 2017, it's seems that there is potential in 21 Savage beyond right now.

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