After 21 Savage, who was born in the U.K., was detained by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office last year, Jay-Z helped to provide him legal counsel. In a recent interview, Savage revealed that, upon release, he went to the house the legendary rapper shares with Beyoncé to thank him for his help and offered to pay him back. “He was like, ‘I don’t want your money,’” Savage said. “He said, ‘Pay me back by being great.’”
When one of rap’s biggest artists gives you that kind of motivation, whatever comes next is bound to be your biggest move yet. And for 21 Savage, that meant getting back to the sinister, villainous feel of his Savage Mode series that birthed his fearful image back in 2016. Since that release, his sound has been watered down in the way that happens when rappers become pop stars. But Savage Mode II recenters what made him such a breath of fresh air when he entered the game in the first place. With an intense, one-note focus that melds the anger that accompanies longing for success and finding it and going back into your bag, 21 Savage successfully bridges his current life with that of yesterday, creating a worthy sequel that lives up to its name and re-establishes 21 Savage as one of rap’s most dangerous pens—who just so happens to be a pop star, too.
More than most of his peers, 21 Savage succeeds by repurposing trauma into almost careless observations that could be considered rumblings to an attentive therapist. His catalog so far is proof of his ability to turn lemons into lemonade—frequently transforming dangerous childhood experiences into prequels to catchy threats. His debut album, Issa, and follow-up, I Am > I Was, were focused on growing out of that sound into a more traditional, pop-crossover rapper. He devoted equal time to not only his past transgressions, but also figuring out the difference between love and lust in some of his many encounters. He was clearly improving, but he wasn’t as comfortable explaining his feelings as he was the intricacies of how his gun shoots.
Savage Mode II is the sequel to 21 Savage’s breakout project, Savage Mode, a collaboration with then-rising producer Metro Boomin, who was able to unlock the key to what makes the best of Savage work: haunted beats that parallel an already intense voice’s simmering anger. Standout “No Heart” explained what growing up in the streets does to your emotions and could be best described as the music that plays when the killer is creeping up on an innocent bystander in a low-budget horror film. This is the essence of what Savage Mode II builds on: being sadistic, brutal, bigger, better and more savage than ever before.
Savage Mode II immediately makes the stakes apparent with its narration courtesy of legendary actor Morgan Freeman. Though there’s no discernable narrative throughout, he treats the project at-large like an educational TV series, explaining 21 Savage’s worldview and offering a sense of authority that anchors the album’s violence in reality. Immediately after Freeman’s intro, 21 Savage kicks things off with “Runnin,” a song about cars and enemies who won’t stand still. A spooky sample is the central piece of the beat, built around an ominous set of drums that give the rapper’s threats some real oomph. Whether it’s letting listeners know that his life “is not a game” or reiterating, once again, that they can “get whacked” by playing with him, the album’s hair-raising qualities make it an immersive and blindingly scary listen.
Savage Mode II is at its best when 21 Savage’s eyes are black and his horns are bared. “Glock In My Lap” is the most frightening song I’ve heard this year, connecting the haunting sounds of a slasher film trailer with 21 Savage’s instructions on how to commit a respectable murder. He mimics the sound of bullet wounds hitting flesh, gleefully explains that he doesn’t have beef because his enemies are made of dust, and drops bullet casings over entire street blocks, all while blood drains down the walls in the booth around him. “Slidin” is much of the same, if not a more party-worthy beat, that focuses more on drive-by shootings than the intricacies of face-to-face violence. On these songs, and others like the beautifully simple “Brand New Draco,” 21 Savage details the NSFW like few others can, in a way that’s hard to tear your ear away from.
When he’s not detailing his violent past and present, 21 Savage explains how sexually active he is—to mixed results. “Many Men,” which references the 50 Cent song of the same name, is largely about what kind of naughty things he does with models. Bits and pieces of his darker songs feature lyrics about getting freaky, but they’re camouflaged behind broader messages, so they’re a bit easier to digest. The only blatant misstep of this nature is “Mr. Right Now” with Drake. The album’s biggest song feels like an uncomfortable failure, from the beat to 21 Savage’s admission that he’s a savage but he likes to have sex to Beyoncé songs. You can practically hear him reading off of his phone, which ordinarily isn’t a bad thing, but when you compare it to how lively and passionate his most violent bars are, it feels like it’s coming a little too soon—especially when Drake arrives on the second half and has some fun, name-dropping SZA as someone he’s dated in the past. The song almost sounds like a throwaway from Drake’s forthcoming Certified Lover Boy album that he gave to 21 Savage. If that’s the case, he probably should have given it back.
Savage Mode II’s best moment is thanks to Freeman, whose voice is a constant throughout the project as he poses questions for the listener. One of them is basically whether making Savage Mode II was a good idea. This tongue-in-cheekness extends to the explanations for what a snitch and rat are on “Snitches & Rats Interlude.” Freeman says “A ‘snitch’ is someone minding other folks’ business / To find information they can sell for a price or trade for some other form of compensation / A ‘rat’ is a traitor, a conceiver, planner, or physical participator,” in such plain, digestible speak that this interlude in particular should become a part of every criminal justice collegiate program in the world. But once it seamlessly transitions into the song of the same name, 21 Savage’s ability to deconstruct what was just explained is a masterful and chill-inducing approach. No matter if someone’s a snitch or a rat, the details don’t matter to the rapper. They just shouldn’t exist.
You learn a lot about 21 Savage on Savage Mode II through his own voice and that of Freeman, who seemingly explains what he’s thinking. But the rapper is most at home when he’s combing over his past and using it to define his present. His songs aren’t violent for violence’s sake—it’s just what he knows. There’s even an introspective set of lines on “My Dawg” that showcase some frustration with his pending deportation case, revealing that his spur-of-the-moment rapping style is his defense mechanism for coping with what he’s been through. He’s still facing some confidence issues when it comes to explaining romance—even though he has lust down-pat—but it’s not enough to be criticism-worthy, especially since he’s been making strides to exit his comfort zone.
Savage Mode II is a worthy successor to the original, building on that initial moment that made 21 Savage a household name. Adventurous, introspective, and thoughtful, it’s just what the world needs from the rapper at this moment, even if we didn’t know it: a reminder that even though he’s facing a major crisis, his ability to fold his past into the present is making him the legend that Jay-Z—and the world—are watching him become.
Trey Alston is a freelance music journalist who’s covered pop culture for Vulture, Complex, MTV News, Pitchfork, and more. When he isn’t writing about the latest releases, he is a copywriter and strategist for labels. Follow him on Twitter.