21 Savage / Metro Boomin
Savage Mode 2 wants to be a moment, at a time when the only moments that seem to matter are life-and-death. It’s the sequel to the mixtape immortalized in the Atlanta hip-hop canon, the one that made 21 Savage a star and cemented Metro Boomin as the signature rap producer of the 2010s. It’s Metro’s official return after almost two years of near silence, and most notably, 21’s first release since he was unjustly detained and threatened with deportation by ICE. It’s packaged with a cover made by the historic Pen and Pixel company and it features Drake and Young Thug guest appearances, along with Morgan Freeman, who gives a Big Rube-style monologue about “Snitches and Rats.”
Sequels are supposed to be bigger, louder, and more expansive. Throughout Savage Mode 2 it’s obvious that this duty is weighing on their shoulders. Savage Mode was a straightforward collection of nine good-to-great songs, while the sequel is intended to be a legacy-defining stamp. You can tell that every piano chord, 808, and sample chop was endlessly stressed over; Metro’s production is not as effortless as it once was.
At their worst, Metro and 21 try too hard. On “Said N Done,” Metro’s flip of Stephanie Mills’ “Touch Me Now” is smooth, but given to 21, it feels like it’s only purpose is to capitalize on the modestly viral Instagram videos of the rapper singing along to R&B hits. When the Atlanta rapper unleashes the in-his-feelings side of his personality it’s gimmicky, which is most clear on the Drake-assisted “Mr. Right Now.” “Slip and slide like a waterfall/You need some TLC, we can creep if you want,” raps 21, squeezing in the most surface-level ’90s R&B references imaginable.
But Metro is up to the task, despite some overthinking. The St. Louis-raised beatmaker does more than simply lay the foundation for 21 Savage, who at his best sounds like the rare villain in a slasher movie that you root for. Metro completely controls the brooding atmosphere, with beats that lay drum patterns rooted in Atlanta trap and Memphis crunk over an unpredictable mix of melodies and samples.
“Glock in My Lap” is arguably the most cinematic beat Metro’s ever made. Produced alongside Honorable C.N.O.T.E. and Southside, their three consecutive producer tags add tension like the consecutive footsteps on a creaky floor in a horror movie. All 21 has to do is follow Metro’s lead. Similarly, the busy “Rich Nigga Shit” instrumental madly weaves together a hypnotic string section with a breezy West Coast vibe (and lots of cowbell). It shouldn’t work but does, like a french fry dipped in a milkshake. 21 comes off slightly unnatural on the song, ultimately overshadowed by a Young Thug guest verse memorable enough to reignite Metro Thugginpipedreams.
21 Savage is only comfortable when Metro is slightly more reserved. “Slidin” could fit on any Metro project released in the last half decade, and 21 is naturally rapping about violence as if he gets a kick out of it like O-Dog in Menace II Society: “I just made an opp do the running man,” he raps. His punchlines have been better, but he makes up for it by sounding like he’s skipping through a wasteland. “Steppin On Niggas” is the one Metro risk where 21 holds his own; he flows like he spent time studying Eazy-E.
Nevertheless it’s hard to be swept up by the aura of Savage Mode 2when it’s just fine. The first Savage Mode didn’t become an ATL classic because of celebrity cameos or Billboard numbers; it was because Metro and 21 were at the peak of their powers, and only the producer is close here. 21 Savage is just along for the ride.