Rap fandom is a peculiar pathology because it forces listeners to compartmentalize worlds of real and hypothetical violence, to revel in one while still finding the other jarring and unacceptable. This is not a distinction I gather the average American faces on a daily basis, barring fans of the bloodiest horror and action films, who retain the luxury of pawning all the guts and gore off as fiction. I thought about this over the weekend when I got my hands on Savage Mode, the new release from the Georgia hip-hop duo of 21 Savage and Metro Boomin, the former a rising rapper of unapologetic brutality, and his partner, a famed producer and associate of A-listers including Drake, Future, and Kanye West. I set about quoting the most devilish lines on my Twitter as I heard them — I often do this with new rap that interests me — but soon trailed off. It felt right but I briefly wondered how it could be wrongly received. The world reels from random, disorienting acts of gun violence, but here I am snickering at raps about gunshots and drug abuse.
Truthfully, this year has confounded me, and this summer has numbed me. As a nation, we denounce mass killings while legislating easy access to the weapons used to carry them out. (Each incident seems to render the nightmare scenario of a Donald Trump presidency a little less statistically improbable. Doesn’t it feel like Citizen Kane?) After days of gorging myself on the news and speaking to people on the internet and in the street to gain a greater understanding of the country’s intersecting avenues of race and violence, I’ve checked out. Wiped out. I’ve trust-fallen into angry rap music. The 21 Savage tape has energized me where bar debates and presidential town halls have failed. The lyrics are matter-of-fact in their cruelty. (“Savage sending hits like a wiseguy / I’ma sit in front the judge and tell a damn lie,” “Seen my niggas in a hearse, I Stevie Wonder’d why / Retaliation, let ‘em spark like it’s the Fourth, July.”) The production is dark and suffocatingly minimalist. This music is built from the same casual hopelessness that shocks us cold whenever we awake to fresh news of mass murder or police brutality. But in it, there’s a sense that the power is ours.
Savage Mode presents a world where style and unflappable cool are king, where being a man without fear or duplicity is enough to get by. “I grew up in the streets without a heart,” he raps on “No Heart. “I’m praying to my Glock and my card.” The sensibility runs perpendicular to conventional morality because the country’s rule of law doesn’t account for all of the difficulties of living on the brokedown side of town. The jobs on the market don’t necessarily cover expenses; better-paying gigs require education and experience that aren’t available to everyone. Supplementary income is often imperative, but even the subtlest of side hustles involves a risky dance with law enforcement. Eric Garner sold loosie cigarettes. Alton Sterling sold CDs. They’re no longer with us, on a certain level because laws drafted to protect billion-dollar industries rendered their resourcefulness extralegal. But Savage Mode is gleefully ultraviolent and pridefully indulgent in its celebration of 21’s willingness to make money by any means necessary. It is a world that rewards craftiness.
21 Savage’s music is frequently depraved, but it is neither lawless nor senseless. Fortune favors the bold, and recklessness precipitates loss. I get the rules. The game is the game. In a summer full of sudden, unexplainable death, Savage Mode relieves my tension by offering up a pocket universe somehow less fucked than the nightly news. Most of the cruelty is exacted on goons who tried it first. Hardworking people don’t die for no reason. Savage’s outlook is a natural reaction to the conditions he’s seen. (“Came from nothin,’ nigga we was poor / Eviction notices all on the door / Take out trash for some school clothes / I’m the one that the streets chose.”) Through the record he fashions himself as someone who has beat back adversity and now dedicates himself to making trouble for creeps who refuse to live by a code. He’s like a Batman for ineffective drug dealers and dishonest rappers. The times are dark right now, and the news is harsh, but right now Savage Mode is my happy place.