On the shortest day of 2018, Atlanta native 21 Savage released arguably the best rap album of the entire year.
“I Am > I Was” (pronounced “I Am Greater Than I Was”) is just the rapper’s second full studio album, and it is a drastic improvement on his “Issa Album.” While that album contains a healthy mixture of commercial tracks which fit into the traditional 21 Savage formula and deeper, more experimental songs, many of the more ambitious tracks could have been executed better.
With “I Am > I Was,” however, 21 Savage shows the listener what he is truly capable of. The record does contain some standard 21 Savage singles — “Break Da Law” being the most obvious example — but for much of the album the rapper takes risks and experiments with new sounds and styles, to excellent effect.
That “I Am > I Was” will not just be more of the same 21 Savage becomes apparent with the first track and the lone single from the album, “A Lot.” While the song is far from a lyrical masterpiece, its sonic layering and stylistic complexity set it apart from the rapper’s previous body of work.
The track opens with several lines sung in a gospel-inspired early 2000s R&B style, which are overtaken by a unique beat courtesy of producer DJ Dahi which blends a trap sound with more traditional hip-hop elements. Between the continued R&B vocals in the background, the beat and the main verses rapped in 21 Savage’s signature soft-spoken style, the track has a deep texture with a variety of contrasting and complementary layers which make for a rich and complex soundscape.
Savage builds on this artistic momentum with the album’s fourth track, “Out for the Night.” The song opens with a smooth, laid back slide guitar riff provided by Carlos Santana which is quickly joined by a fast, powerful beat created by producer Kid Hazel and by harsh verses. By his standards, 21 Savage’s flow on the track is downright ferocious — loud, fast and hostile. The contrast between Santana’s guitar backing and the beat and rapping make “Out for the Night” one of the most immersive and compelling tracks on “I Am > I Was.”
The next track, “Gun Smoke,” again features impressive layering between the backing track, the beat, backup vocals and 21’s verses. It is followed by “1.5,” one of the faster-paced songs on the album. In contrast to the previous two tracks, on “1.5” the beat itself cedes center stage to a synthetic backing track which sounds vaguely like a digital flute. This unique structure mixed with a call and answer vocal structure and an excellent verse from the Migos’ Offset makes “1.5” one of the most enjoyable and easy listening tracks on the album.
The album does have its weak points. The third track, “A&T” is easily the worst on the album. While the song’s sound is relatively interesting, the listener is distracted by an unnecessarily loud and obscene chorus, which is abrasive and unpleasant. Savage’s verses are not much better, making “A&T” the only real swing-and-miss on the entire album.
Another weak track is “All My Friends,” which is good to listen to but feels less like a 21 Savage song featuring Post Malone and more like a Post Malone song featuring 21 Savage. Either Savage failed to take enough creative ownership over the track, allowing Post Malone to dominate it, or he wrote it with the other rapper in mind and tried to make the song match the featured artist. Regardless, the track just feels out of place on the album, and should have been released separately.
In contrast to “All My Friends,” Savage’s use of Childish Gambino’s feature on “Monster” is masterful. Gambino’s verses fit well into both the song and the album as a whole, complementing Savage’s music and filling a stylistic hole left by Savage’s slower, softer flow.
With the exception of a few poorly executed tracks, “I Am > I Was” is a fantastic album full of fresh, unique music. 21 Savage takes risks with his music, trying new things and creating new sounds which elevate his artistry to a higher creative plane.
Though this album is not quite as good as Young Thug’s masterpiece “Beautiful Thugger Girls,” there is a strong comparison to be drawn between the two. In both cases, the artists expanded their musical horizons and reached creative levels which trap music had not reached before them. This is still just 21 Savage’s second full album, and if he can continue in the direction he has set with this effort in the future, it is hard to imagine what he might achieve.