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Review: 21 Savage Hits the Limits of Nihilism on Issa Album

On record, a compelling version darkness is often just a half-step away from ennui. The Atlanta rapper 21 Savage managed to stay closer to the former half on last year’s excellent Savage Mode, where he sanded off his high-pitch yap into a sneakily melodic growl. Though many have attributed that project’s success to Metro Boomin‘s production—stark and surreal, like glistening kaleidoscope lenses in a cave—its cinematic pull was more rooted in the appeal of 21 Savage’s serrated persona. Yes, that persona is largely one-dimensional, but it’s unapologetically so in a way that folds the world’s excess into his worldview. The obvious example was “No Heart,” which found 21 wantonly composing faux dialogue, telling his biography with lucid efficiency, and subverting rap’s come-up trope with his dark humor. Multi-car garages have been linked to his impish grin ever since.

His new record Issa Album—the name is a nod to a meme that helped in part to propel his fame—peaks when it mines 21 Savage’s psyche and falters when it attempts to stretch out its breadth. The latter flaw is disheartening because it’s a needless one: Like “No Heart,” the debut album’s clear standout “Bank Account”—featuring a melancholic acoustic sample produced by 21 himself—works because of how he convincingly paints fame and violence with the same sanguine brush (“Got ’em tennis chains on and they real blingy / Draco make you do the chicken head like Chingy”). He’s also strong enough of a writer to strike with pointillistic detail, like he does on the “Nothin New,” which draws threads from Martin Luther King’s death to fatalistic hopelessness with sharp detail (“Lost his faith in Jesus Chris, now he prayin’ to a bandana”). Metro Boomin, who takes up the lion’s share of the production duties, still demonstrates the natural ability illustrate 21’s calcified reality. With his nefarious keys, 21’s “Have you ever made a nigga mama cry?” on “Close My Eyes” feels like a lived nightmare.

But Issa Album tasks itself with having the wide scope of an album, which forces 21 to rap along when he doesn’t have much to say. As a result, his threats come across less dead-eyed and more sickly as the LP progresses. Issa Album also takes measures to show 21’s romantic side. There’s “Facetime”—a song about Facetime—that fits about as awkwardly as “Hey Luv (Anything)” would on The InfamousIssa Album is needn’t be The Infamous, but it could’ve benefitted from a clearer and tighter direction.