Rap music has always had a complicated relationship with the American dream. Through rose-colored glasses, the artists, producers and executives who find success in hip-hop often embody a by-the-bootstraps ethos, but it tends to be the result of lifelong efforts to grapple with and overcome a darker subtext of systemic oppression and cultural adversity. For Atlanta rap superstar 21 Savage, the phrase “American Dream”–the title of his long-awaited third solo album–has an additional undercurrent. The name plays both sides: the aspiration to success, of course, but also as a reference to the highly-publicized 2020 arrest by U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement that led to the revelation he was actually born in the U.K. and emigrated to the United States as a child.
Being a non-American rapper, 21 rightfully didn’t face professional blowback for his heritage (save for a few idiots on Twitter) and his credibility as a master of menace remains intact. For 21, the backstory adds a level of complexity to his narrative, one that certain emcees would find all-consuming (imagine if it were revealed that Drake was British, he’d never stop making albums about it). But 21’s music is never overwrought, and his references to his English origins are reserved for a few choice bars and clever social media promo. “Keep talkin’ ’bout where I was born / Likе a n—a wanna still get clapped,” he warns on the Doja Cat-featuring “N.H.I.E.” Instead, it serves as a very broad framing for the album, particularly in opening and closing spoken interludes from his mother. (“My dreams have always gone beyond the crossing of a pond. As a mother, every path I walked was for my son,” she says on the intro.)
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In smaller doses, 21 mostly presents as the bad guy, like on breakout project “Savage Mode,” the Halloween collaboration “Without Warning,” or choice features like “Don’t Come Out the House.” He moves across beats like Michael Myers, never sprinting yet catching up to inflict grisly violence. But on his excellent 2018 sophomore solo album “I Am > I Was” and the best moments of “American Dream,” he’s not simply a flat slasher or undercooked specter; he’s a multifaceted character worth building the whole film around. (And, in the case of “American Dream,” it appears that he, Donald Glover and “Stranger Things”’ Caleb McLaughlin are literally doing just that.) As a listener invested in his story, it’s hard not to want 21 to open up more about his own relationship to the American dream. But even when he’s covering well-worn territory–gang life in Atlanta, fallen friends, musical success–he’s finding novel ways to talk about it.
21’s strongest rap skills, his caustic sense of humor and deadpan delivery, are fully intact on “American Dream.” “He a homebody, fuck it, kill him in his yard,” he raps on “All of Me.” “Say you touched me, how Sway?,” he jokes on “Redrum.” But his no-nonsense approach to rapping–minimal convoluted slant rhymes, sparing use of AutoTune, concise flows–also allows him to convey genuine emotion when he so chooses. “Letter to My Brudda,” a spiritual sequel to “I Am > I Was“’ “Letter 2 My Momma,” is filled with cutting lines about loyalty; reflections on the criminalization of rap music; and tender ruminations on fallen friends. An album full of those sorts of songs from Savage wouldn’t be fully playing to his strengths, but sprinkling in a few cuts like “Brudda” and “Dark Days” amongst songs like “Redrum” and “Pop Ur Shit” makes them effective moments of juxtaposition without scanning as redundant.
Savage has one of the best ears for beats in modern hip-hop, and his noted chemistry with Metro Boomin is present on standout cuts like “Pop Ur Shit” and “Dangerous” (even though the former’s Young Thug guest verse sounds hastily censored in a way that disrupts its rhythm). There are some choice inclusions, though: “See the Real,” which plays like a reheated take on Drake’s “Nice For What,” has a luxurious, airy beat, just not one that necessarily suits Savage’s voice. The rapper has always kept a small circle of collaborators, but “American Dream” would have benefited from a few more outside-the-box features, like how Schoolboy Q, J. Cole and Project Pat show up on “I Am > I Was.” At a certain point, you can only hear so many Travis Scott and Lil Durk verses or Summer Walker hooks before it reaches diminishing returns.
Despite his hardened exterior and his penchant for vivid images of violence, 21 has always comported himself well on romantic songs. The personality he shows when talking about women feels consistent with who he is when he’s rapping about more conventional 21 Savage subject matter. The wry wit and frankness remain in standout bars on “Just Like Me” (“I asked her body count, she sent the GIF of me and Cole”) and “Prove It” (“Talk about me in your stories / Bae, sub-tweet me”).
21 is out here living the American dream, long past the expected career lifespan of a modern-day rapper in today’s frenzied pop culture landscape. It’s a bit disappointing that he doesn’t quite delve into his immigration battle and its ensuing impact that the title portends, but the album is a portrait of an artist in rich command of his pen atop both consistently luxurious and eerily sparse beats. “American Dream” won’t go down as the definitive 21 album, but it proves that he’s nowhere near short on material. He peeled back a few layers, but he’s got so much more to explore.
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