Rapper 21 Savage had to grow up quickly. His environment tested his character and carved a set path for him at an early age -- one that he later chose to redirect through hard work, determination and the stubborn mindset of a tenacious street soldier. From getting banned from every school in the DeKalb County School District in the seventh grade due to gun possession to surviving being shot six times by rival gang members on his 21st birthday, 21 Savage has lived his raps. Now, after several years in the spotlight, the Atlanta rapper continues to captivate audiences through a precarious blend of authenticity, strategy, perseverance and above all, growth.
Compared to a handful of his headline-dominating peers, 21 had a relatively quiet year, popping up for the occasional guest feature and sidestepping the spotlight after the tabloids stopped diligently clocking for him after his high-profile relationship with Amber Rose came to an end. As exemplified by the quality of his freshly released sophomore album, i am > i was, one could assert 21 Savage was both in full control of his creative process (for possibly the first time in this capacity) and aware that especially in today's over-saturated, constant- release cycle, taking his time could hold the potential to play in his favor. The star's decision to wait until the buzzer to release his follow-up to 2017's Issa Album makes for an interesting and fitting choice, allowing fans to reflect on his journey alongside him and field inspirational gems to carry into the new year.
There is a famous idiom that describes one of the most idealistic approaches to one's creative process, explaining that the best writers spend two weeks living and two weeks working on their craft. While most of 21 Savage's career wasn't granted such a romantic luxury and instead was fueled by a no days off mentality from the streets or the studio alike, it's clear he's now in a different place and can afford to take his time. Perhaps his ability to weave his lived experiences, his oft-gritty wordplay and personably dark humor into his music is his greatest definitive quality as a rapper who, quite frankly, didn't necessarily anticipate he'd ever become who he stands as today. Savage knows his strength lies in his evolving story, adamantly expressing he wouldn't wish what he's been through on anyone. He is simply, genuinely trying to be greater than he was, much like the title of his second album suggests.
During his recent appearance on "The Breakfast Club," the 26-year-old opens up in what arguably is his most personal interview to date, even addressing what inspired him to peel back some layers and reveal a new side of himself to his fans.
"I feel like a lot of rappers don't have a story or been through it," he asserts, speaking with the co-hosts of the famed morning show. "I had an identity at a young age. Before rap, I always been a savage." Elsewhere throughout the insightful dialogue, he humbly touches on his own growth, reflecting on the power that comes with having built the platform he has and choosing to view that as a responsibility to do right by others.
"I feel like I sacrificed a lot in my life to be here," Savage continued. "At first, I wasn't really taking it, like, [seriously] because I ain't really know what it was gon' be. What it could do, and what I could do with it. I just sat back and thought about all the shit that I been through in my life… I gotta do whatever I could do to just do my best with it. It's a gift for real." He later added, "I want to tell my story. But, I don't want people to live through it."
With Savage's maturation now at the forefront of his narrative, it is pleasantly refreshing to witness his growth in real time, especially when factoring in how much the rapper's been through before he even tried his hand at rap -- let alone received recognition for it. Savage's sophomore album reflects the self-expression of an artist who is stepping into his own, fully aware that his life is far different than what it used to be and that, still, none of it is promised.
Savage's vulnerability paired with his candidness reveals how one thing that hasn't changed is how he's figuring it all out as he goes along. Self-awareness is an integral part of having an instinctual survival mode, something that translates both subtly and substantially into his music. From opening up about his experiences with trauma -- such as losing countless friends to violence to admittedly trying therapy to his ability to showcase more raw emotion on wax -- 21 Savage's i am > i was marks a distinctive turning point in his career.
With 21 Savage embracing his next chapter as an artist developing in front of the world's eyes, let's take a look at five takeaways from i am > i was that showcase his amicable and undeniable growth, both as an artist and as a man.
Introspection is necessary in order to grow.
How much money you got? (A lot)
How many problems you got? (A lot)
How many people done doubted you? (A lot)
Left you out to rot? (A lot)
How many pray that you flop? (A lot)
How many lawyers you got? (A lot)
How many times you got shot? (A lot) - "a lot" featuring J. Cole
During the introductory track, "A Lot" featuring J. Cole, 21 poses a slew of questions. He covers topics such as fame and wealth, as well as asks what was sacrificed along the way. The rapper explores how far he's come and what he's been through -- which range from the root of his gangster mentality to how his brother's death ignited a fire within him. It's one thing to weather a storm and it's another to understand what lessons arose in the process -- 21 Savage is learning how to do both.
Exploring one's perspectives on love and loyalty, through experience, is part of the process.
I'd rather have loyalty than love
'Cause love really don't mean jack (Straight up)
See love is just a feeling
You can love somebody and still stab them in the back (Oh God) - "ball w/o you"
Savage explained the inspiration behind this track during his appearance on "The Breakfast Club" by breaking down why -- at this moment in his life -- he is placing a larger importance on loyalty rather than love.
"It ain't really about her [Amber], it's about just relationships," he shared with Charlamagne. "I ain't gon' lie—it ain't about her. But, certain shit that I'm saying in the song, me and her done had them discussions. I done talked to her when we was together about, 'Fuck your love, Amber. I don't want your love, I want your loyalty.' I done had them discussions with her. So, that's where that came from. It's not just about her."
Then, Savage explained how he and Rose maintained a solid friendship, as well as adds how loyalty is an action and love doesn't always mean a person has your best interest at heart.
Part of growth is showing love to those who supported you the most.
October ninety-two when you pushed me out (Straight up)
It was only right that I made a song about you (Straight up)
Ain't no tellin' where I'd be if I went without you (On God)
Wish I woulda stayed in school, but I dropped out (On God)
You taught me how to be strong, gotta give praise
When the times got hard, you always made ways (On God) - "letter 2 my momma"
Showing gratitude is an essential component to growth, as it allows for reflection of how far you've come and remember who supported you, without question, along the way. Savage's ode to his mother, Heather Abraham-Joseph, further speaks to this, especially considering how out of place such a track like this would have felt on Issa Album.
Sometimes you really do have to sacrifice your old life for your new one, friendships included.
I remember times was dark (I do)
Now I'm backstage with a bar (Big dog)
Couldn't pay the light bill, it was dark (Yeah)
Now I can shine in the dark (On God)
Lost a couple friends, I ain't even really mad though (On God)
I ain't even really mad though (21)
Hard to tell the real from fake
'Cause nowadays, they got masks on
Who gon' be around when the fame and the cash gone? - "all my friends" featuring Post Malone
Savage has kept his circle tight for as long as he can remember. It's not an easy thing for everyone to do. However, the rapper is confident that those he speaks with on a daily basis have his best interest in mind, even though it's bittersweet how much can change sometimes. As he explores throughout this track, the growth Savage experienced arrived in tandem with not everyone being able to join him as he navigates through different levels of his career. Often it's a blessing in disguise, even if -- and especially when -- it's learned the hard way.
Apologies are part of the process, too. That's what growth is by definition: a process.
We been gettin' that Jewish money, everything is kosher. - "asmr"
Savage (and LeBron James) came under fire for these lyrics, as fans felt the line in question perpetuates negative Jewish stereotypes. Both issued apologies for the matter.
"The Jewish people I know are very wise with [their] money, so that's why I said we been gettin Jewish money," 21 Savage said in response to backlash. "I never thought anyone would take offense. I'm sorry if I offended everybody, never my intention. I love all people."
Acknowledgment of one's faults, mistakes and choices are key parts of growth. Savage commenting on the matter and turning it into a genuine learning moment of accountability further showcases how he's far from perfect, but open to improvement and criticism. This instance further proves, while he may have a mantra of being better than he was before, Savage has far from reached his final form. The best part? He's ready and willing to do the work, allowing his growth to yield tangible, respected change.