Album Review: On I am > I was (2018 LP), 21 Savage emerges victorious despite all odds

21 Savage has, for the past few years, stood as a divisive character in modern hip hop. Though, regardless of countless criticisms he has definitely become an established figure on the scene – becoming one of the most commercially successful and well known members of the early soundcloud-rap renaissance of 2016.

As a result, following his very successful debut Issa, attention skyrocketed, leading to high profile collabs with the likes of Post Malone and Drake, with hit after hit seeming to come 21’s way despite a constant stream of backlash.

I am > I was feels like less of a response to these critics, and more so 21 Savage really coming into his own as a rapper; this entire project shows more technical ability and skill as an artist than any project or collab before. The beats are weirder and more varied, yet the once ever-drowsy delivery is now more dynamic and captivating. Numerous flows are deployed across the project, seeing numerous instances of inflection and tempo change that completely blindside listeners; it’s a level of proficiency not shown on this level by 21 Savage previously.

The elements that drew fans to his music, the dark, terrifyingly real lyrics and vivid stories, catchy hook writing, and spasmodic adlibs all still remain, but the quality of writing has improved immensely. Although I have a soft spot for 21, I was not approaching this album with high hopes initially, but the personality expressed and the skill shown is not only commendable, but strengthens the constitution of the album.

He occasionally drops genuine moments of humour, with witty bars like on the anthem “a&t”, which is very disarming and reflects that 21 feels more comfortable when showcasing elements of himself, which pays dividends. Despite these elements of positivity, he hasn’t let his cruel delivery slip at all, “asmr” is a chilling trap track that flies by over compressed hi-hats with some slick delivery.

The songs often grapple with trauma and success; lines about wealth are instantly juxtaposed by grim memories and experiences. “can’t leave without it” captures this perfectly, where Savage’s quick flow swings like a pendulum between chilling and evocative writing and tried and true rapper flex talk. It’s incredibly chilling as Savage evokes a feeling of detachment from what is around him, still partially captured by his past despite the immense success that he has found despite all odds. Despite the title, the album is less so about self improvement and positive development, rather, 21 Savage reflects his progression as one still surrounded by trouble, shining a spotlight on him as an artist, and simply as a man that remains conflicted. The songs are all very well produced and catchy, but have the higher tier quality of honesty, and the level of progression from 21 is commendable in it’s own right, with some of the slickest bars on an album of this trap subgenre in a while.

Despite the song titles, which obfuscate guest appearances, there are numerous features throughout this album. ‘good day’ features a rare ScHoolboy Q verse, that aids in doing the Ice Cube classic justice, feeling like a modernised, darker take on the original. ‘monster’ hits listeners by surprise, with a more soul and funk influenced edge to the instrumental, and an incredibly well delivered Childish Gambino verse that feels like a gift to fans – 21 provided adlibs for Gambino’s 2018 hit ‘This is America’ and having two strikingly different Atlanta artists collaborate so well is a treat for fans to say the least.

Ultimately this is still a very pop-rap influenced project, but the album isn’t claiming to be anything more or different. Despite this fact, the project is the most clear aggregation of the personality of 21 Savage and paints pictures of conflict and success in such detached ways that very few other artists could achieve the same feeling on a verse, let alone across an album.


i am > i was is available now.