21 Savage and Metro Boomin’s “Savage Mode” dropped on this day, in 2016. We look back on its initial impact.

“21 Savage is important because he’s one of the last real street n*ggas left making music,” saidMetro Boomin back in 2015. This was shortly after 21 released his debut mixtape, The Slaughter Tape, and the two would go on to create the 9-track opus Savage Mode. The extended play cemented 21 Savage’s cult status in the underground hip-hop scene, while also floating him up above ground, as he began his mainstream ascent. 

Metro’s assessment of 21 Savage’s importance encapsulates our initial attraction to the artist and the allure of Savage Mode. As fans of hip-hop, we place a certain importance on authenticity that might otherwise go unnoticed, or perhaps, unneeded. While it may no longer be our primary consideration when it comes to enjoying an artist’s music, it is still a factor that has the ability to uplift an artist’s profile and equally, create a sort of magnetic attraction with the fans. This fascination, one we collectively felt upon the first listen of Savage Mode, has its roots somewhere in the midst of genuineness and rawness.

21 savage savage mode

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21 Savage wasn’t the first artist to capture these elements on wax and build a fanbase off the authenticity of a past street life. He is simply an instance of it, and perhaps pointedly: an instance of this occurring in the digital age, when everything happens at a quickened and more heightened pace. Thus, what might have taken five years or more to build out in the past, happened to 21 Savage in the span of six months or less. And we’ve seen this play out again, post-21 Savage, too. An artist like Lil Baby rose to fame seemingly overnight, following a jail stint and then, a decision to leave illegal antics behind. Baby’s success was again, inextricably attached to his legitimacy in the ATL streets and his innate ability to rap. The culmination of these two assets draws our awe, in the sense that this is the ideal ‘success story’: someone with a tattered and tough upbringing who overcame it by way of pure talent. It doesn’t hurt that this is also one of hip-hop’s most prominent story arcs, and the manner in which the genre was first birthed.

21 Savage had just two mixtape under his belt when Savage Mode  wasreleased on July 15, 2016. He had been rapping for a total of three years. Under this lens, the idea that 21 contained a natural ability to rap becomes evident. His life prior to rap was one that was fueled by the streets, but he finally had his ‘aha’ moment when his best friend was shot and killed in 2013, during which he also suffered six bullet wounds. “My voice is needed, if it weren’t for my voice, n*ggas wouldn’t even know n*ggas shoot in Atlanta. N*ggas would think everybody wears Giuseppe’s and buy Versace. N*ggas would think everybody got money in Atlanta. There’s n*ggas fucked up in Atlanta. It’s a lot of poverty, it’s n*ggas struggling, it’s n*ggas hustling, it’s n*ggas robbing and n*ggas killing in Atlanta. It ain’t all money and drugs like the picture is painted. It’s a lot of gangsta shit going on in Atlanta,” 21 Savage said early in his career, sharing a mission statement of sorts when it came to his music. In the same interview, he readily admitted that this type of content itself is “nothing new” to hip-hop. But we’re going to bring back some shit that’s needed,” he added. 

We now have a few elements at play when it comes to assessing the EP’s profound impact: there was the rawness and authenticity in 21 Savage as a person, an emotive quality that translated directly in his voice; there was a sense of wonder at his seemingly pure and at-the-time-undiscovered talent; and lastly– perhaps there was also a simple void to fill, a demand in the market that was not being fulfilled: a need for “real street shit, real life shit.”

21 savage and metro boomin

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We are forgetting something, though. Savage Mode was ½ 21 Savage, and ½ Metro Boomin. The producer may have been a notch higher than 21 in terms of career success at the time of the release, but Metro’s involvement in the EP incidentally propelled his own career further. 

Across The Slaughter Tape and Slaughter King mixtapes, you will find 21’s early blueprint; a deadpan and dehydrated cadence, distinct gravel-like vocals, a flow that is at times strained and at others, lazy. However the projects as a whole lack a certain refinement, the production is a bit more scattered and a bit less sleek. On Savage Mode, with a singular producer as the guiding hand and curator of beats, the backdrop became more polished, while still maintaining this eerie and sinister quality that much of 21’s early music had.

The project also played directly into the burgeoning streaming era, not only in its succinct nature but in its playlist-like quality; one song seemed to bleed into another, the vibe was handed down steadily from the mellowed ringing of “No Advance” through to the airy closer, “Ocean Drive.” Each song seems to move purposefully, in both beat and lyrics, and perhaps the short length of the tracklist enunciates this further, demanding our complete attention. 21 is not the most loquacious rapper, so each word he utters feels all the more important, in its brevity. And even in his curt nature, 21 manages to depict a scene so clearly while also creating an emotional resonance, itself a feat. On the same project where 21 menacingly raps, Bitch, I hang around them Haitians / Pull up on you, tie your kids up / Pistol whip you while your bitch naked” (“No Heart”), he later claims, “These streets so dirty, I just want someone who really there / Can’t fake love, I just want someone who really care” (“Feel It”). It’s a necessary dichotomy that has become not only prevalent, but expected, of rappers in recent years. 

Revisit Savage Mode today, four years later, and it sounds current. The EP continues to age gracefully, maintaining a contemporary quality to the production that ensures it’s still worthy of replay value today. It serves as a reminder of 21’s early virtuosity and hints towards his future, one that would find him growing and learning from his past, moving upwards and onwards from his hard-wrought beginnings. Even as 21 Savage does this, as he becomes the type of man who is involved in both charity work and much-needed programs for under-privileged youths, there is something captivating about the simple lack of f*cks he gave on Savage Mode. It’s the type of magic that is often only captured in an artist’s debut, before industry politics and the need for maturation are thrust upon them. Just as much as we can applaud 21’s growth, so too can we also revel in his dalliances with savagery and sin.