On April 25, House of Blues plays host to the gritty frontier of hip-hop’s ever-evolving zeitgeist. 21 Savage rolls through Cleveland, headlining a packed lineup of fascinating new archetypes in the rap industry.
Savage and his straight-forward, hypnotic street tales represent one of the most insightful case studies on Atlanta’s establishment as hip-hop’s capital and the industry’s thirst for authenticity.
21 Savage – born Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph – is another asset for Atlanta as it entrenches its top spot in hip-hop’s hierarchy. The 24-year-old’s steady rise over the last two years has leveraged support from the city’s well-known hip-hop figures, demonstrating the powerful, star-making infrastructure of the city’s rap ecosystem.
Noted producer Sonny Digital (ILoveMakonnen’s “Tuesday,” 2 Chainz’ “Birthday Song”) gave him his first mic and first copy of the Pro Tools production software after they were introduced by rapper Key!, a mainstay in the city’s various underground collectives. Digital and Savage collaborated on their 2015 Free Guwop EP, a tribute to trap godfather and fellow Atlantan Gucci Mane. The project was itself peppered with other staple Atlantan producers including TM-88, Southside, and Zaytoven, all of whom have scored hit singles for artists ranging from Young Thug to Waka Flocka, Drake and Kanye.
“The producers show more love to underground [artists] than the big artists,” Joseph said in an interview in The Fader, “They want to see you win.”
Last July’s critically lauded Savage Mode EP was a collaboration with Metro Boomin, hip-hop’s Midas producer, and featured fellow Atlantan Future on his biggest single to date, “X.”
While Savage has taken advantage of the robust musical resources around him, he’s not just a cog in Atlanta’s built-in accoutrements and machinations. Rather, these have simply served as facilitators while his fanbase grew organically based on his story and lived experience – Joseph’s credentials stem from his authenticity.
Kicked out of the county’s school system by 8th grade for gun possession, 21 Savage ditched his alternative high school after a semester.
This is a man who flatly lists the murders of family members, friends and surrogate mothers like he’s recalling what he had for breakfast. This is a man who was shot six times on his 21st birthday in a botched drug deal while his best friend was killed in the seat next to him.
In an authenticity-starved society, 21 Savage’s raw portrayals of this lifestyle serve as a potential antidote to packaged cultural constructs, a fact that he is searingly, cautiously aware of. He certainly doesn’t distance himself from forthcoming representations of his experience, yet also recognizes that rapping with authority about these street narratives has a certain fetishistic cachet. In a recent interview with the influential New York radio show the Breakfast Club, he comments, “If [I] wasn’t rapping about these things, who would listen to me? Would I even be on this platform talking to you if I wasn’t for me saying ignorance to catch people’s attention?”
It’s ironically fitting, therefore, that a proxy for 21 Savage became his phrase “Issa knife,” which he used to correct an interviewer asking a question about the “cross” tattooed on his forehead. While the meme made rounds on social media, it stood as a cartoonishly simple analog of his “realness,” his “savagery.” It freed a listener from a deeper engagement with his sad, troubling history while still claiming to value that authentic story. The knife tattoo was an act of tribute and remembrance towards Joseph’s murdered friend, yet the meme became completely divorced from the reality it reflected – it became the “ignorance to catch people’s attention.”
Savage’s authenticity as an abstraction is valued and sought after, yet it may be on its way to commodification as well. After all, this is a corporate-sponsored tour: “21 Savage personifies the Outbreak brand while bringing the intensity of Monster Energy,” this show’s press release notes.
Joseph treats this seemingly paradoxical, potentially paralyzing self-awareness with the same cognitive distance that facilitates his deadpan, nihilistic delivery. He appears impervious to external stimuli and influences, manifesting itself in his simultaneously entrancing and occasionally frustratingly simplistic lyrics. As critic Amos Barshad writes, “He raps nearly exclusively about guns, drugs, and loveless sex, and he is insular to the point of claustrophobia.”
Musically, Savage composes this all into a style that’s best represented on the Savage Mode EP: grim, no frills street tales; eerie, controlled trap production; a delivery that is understated veering on monotony, save the incessant and versatile “21” ad lib. The result is purposefully hypnotic, both intensely focused and suggestively kaleidoscopic. On a recent podcast interview, he comments on this numbing, gnawing approach: “You gotta let ’em digest and force them to listen to this over and over.”
Frequent collaborator Young Nudy, along with emerging stars Young M.A. and Tee Grizzley share the bill with 21 Savage. Young M.A. – an openly queer artist – has been relatively seamlessly accepted into rap’s mainstream despite its history of homophobia, especially after her break-out single, “Ooouuu.” A thoughtful piece by Julianna Escobedo Shepherd in The Fader details M.A. being spared of so many of the qualifiers that traditionally accompany women and queer-identifying artists in hip-hop. Entitled "Young M.A. Still Isn’t Compromising," the article revolves, predictably, around the artist’s uncompromising authenticity to her multi-faceted identity.
Tee Grizzley’s dizzying viral rise was due almost exclusively to a raw, first-person tale. His song “First Day Out” is an autobiographical account of his criminal history and subsequent three-year jail stint all over a crescendoing flip of Future’s "Perkys Callin.'" Within two months of its release, he was signed to the innovative, forward-thinking 300 Entertainment. Grizzley’s whole persona is built on a ‘been there, done that’ self-representation: the first three tracks on his mixtape — an acapella intro rapped over a school lunchtable-type beat, the aforementioned "First Day Out," and the track "Real N***as" — speak to the essential importance of “realness.”
This diverse line-up will be cohesive in their common thread of authenticity, bringing some of these bright young phenoms to Cleveland for the first time. With the bevy of hits in these artists’ repertoires, the tour has been and undoubtedly will be a party when it hits House of Blues. But if you make it out to the show, don’t just accept these bangers at face value – take 21 Savage’s cue and digest these raw stories as well.
21 Savage, Young M.A., Young Nudy, Tee Grizzley, 7 p.m. Tuesday, April 25, House of Blues, 308 Euclid Ave., 216-523-2583. Tickets: $33-$43, houseofblues.com