Review Summary: how many problems you got?
As a rapper, 21 Savage depends quite a bit on his beats. This isn’t a critique as much as it is an observation, as he isn’t the kind of artist that is able to take a beat from good to great. On the other hand, given the right production, his dark, gravely flow and brash confidence can do wonders to express his charisma. This realization came to me very recently when listening to Savage Mode
and i am > i was
within a short time span. The former shows how 21’s abject and apathetic flow can excel in expressing dark themes when built on minimalistic, moody, and downplayed instrumentals from artists like Metro Boomin, who shares a distinct chemistry with the Atlanta rapper. This sophomore album, though? It’s one of those ultimately disappointing records that makes you wonder if you misjudged the artist’s former works.
The beat work on i am > i was
is surprisingly forgettable and inconsistent, with an unfortunate lack of cohesion between instrumentals. The LP features a large slew of production credits, all of which want to either overpresent or heavily borrow trite production techniques from popular trends (light flute melodies, airy piano leads, etc.). In a similar sense, 21’s flow feels way too bland and monotone without the right backing tracks. Of course, I’d be remiss if i didn’t mention his style itself has lost quite a bit of its personal flair. Where his voice was once very downtrodden and distinctively played with the beat, his performances are now consist of a much less deep and interesting triplet flow, shedding a lot of what made his other work so interesting (side note: this isn’t to talk *** about the triplet flow but Savage’s approach is very standard/safe).
When this record does deviate from the norm, it feels extremely bizarre and ill advised. For one thing, the feature choices leave quite a bit to be desired, with substandard verses from Offset, ScHoolboy Q, Yung Miami (one half of City Girls), Childish Gambino, and Gunna as well as expectibly undesirable appearances from the pseudo-intellectual J. Cole and Post “The Culture Vulture” Malone. None of these mesh particularly well and, if anything, often distract from Savage’s verses. In addition, the album contains inadvisable amounts of “eclectic” tracks (for lack of a better term), be it the soulful “a lot,” the memphis-lite “good day,” the somber “ball w/o you,” or the flute based “4L,” “1.5,” and “can’t leave without it.” Many of these contain obnoxious, on-the-nose samples (“monster,” “a lot,” “out for the night”) and/or downright nonsensical style change ups, like the rapsy, annoying singing on “ball w/o you” and the aggravatingly stupid whisper rapping on “asmr.”
But to nitpick all the ridiculous choices/ideas gives the impression that this LP is bad in an interesting way and, while it has these moments, the majority of the full-length is bland and unremarkable. On my first listen, quite a few of the more “out there” moments failed to stick due to being sandwiched in between unadulterated boredom. Much of the small flaws on this record, from the imbalanced mixing to the recycled bars, orbit the main problem - it’s a slog to get through. It commits a deadly sin that rappers like 21 Savage rarely fall into, it’s milquetoast. Unremarkable. Rather than a failure of epic proportions, it’s just boring