Success threatens to rob the Atlanta rapper of what made him stand out to begin with.
“The problems of failure are hard,” the writer Neil Gaiman once said. “The problems of success can be harder, because nobody warns you about them.”
He’s not wrong. Success can break artists, or rob them of what made them special in the first place. For example, Jay-Z might have recently returned to form, but for years his status as an uber-successful musician/businessman meant that his songs were excruciatingly boring. You can only count stacks so many times.
The same is true for a lot of underdog artists who suddenly find themselves on the ‘inside’. For Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, it took away their unique perspective, which was pretty much all they had. In the case of Nirvana, it contributed in a very tangible way to their front-man’s collapse.
Which brings us to 21 Savage. Issa Album is, as its title suggests, his first album proper, and on it he seems uncomfortable with success. The opening track is called ‘Famous’, and it features 21 insisting “I’m too street to walk around with my nose up”. But it seems like he’s trying to reassure himself more than anyone else.
He can’t be blamed for finding it hard to adjust to fame. His success came quickly, as a result of a string of mixtapes he released over the last two years. They were dark, all menacing synths and snares, punctuated by 21’s stone-cold rhymes about violence and life on the streets. It was a calculated move. As mainstream rap got poppier, 21 instead dealt in grit and grimness.
These mixtapes were largely produced by then-underground producers, like Metro Boomin, who also exploded onto the mainstream rap scene last year. That they sounded gritty added to their charm. Now 21’s music has studio gloss. An army of high-end producers worked on Issa Album, with mixed results. At times, they make 21 sound too tame, even mainstream.
His lyrics don’t always help either. There’s a lot of rapping about clothes and money on this album, and it doesn’t suit 21. He’s also been an anti-rapper: anti-mainstream, anti-consumerist, anti-radio. He wears pop appeal uncomfortably.
This change seems be a result of 21’s success. He’s no longer hustling on the streets. These days — as he repeatedly tells us— his bank account is full and his life is luxurious. In other words, he’s like any other rapper. I’m not a fan of him rapping like this. I like my 21 Savage, well, savage. He’s always been at his best when he’s speaking in a barely-audible snarl over slow-burning horror-movie production.
The best tracks on Issa Album are the ones where he returns to this style. ‘I been hanging with the dead people’, he muses on ‘Dead People’, suggesting that the people he lost in his former life still haunt him. It’s real stuff, full of hurt and regret. What made 21 Savage stand out was always his blunt honesty, that he could examine his own pain on record, no matter how uncomfortable. Unfortunately he does that so little here.
It’s ironic that fame is making it harder for 21 Savage to produce the work that made him famous in the first place. Hopefully success doesn’t spell the end of him.