Album Review: 21 Savage & Metro Boomin – Savage Mode II

[Slaughter Gang/Epic; 2020]

The seventh track on Savage Mode II – the second full-length collab between 21 Savage and Metro Boomin – is called “Many Men”, borrowing its name and a sample from a track off 50 Cent’s Get Rich Or Die Tryin’. It’s a fairly bold move, even with (or perhaps because of) the era of 50’s dominance being long past. Interpolating a track from such a colossal album means more than just paying tribute, it says, “This is the kind of presence I aim to have.”

21 Savage does have presence, and Metro Boomin knows how to give him complimentary beats. But presence needs to be sustained by a clear focus and ample charisma. Get Rich Or Die Tryin’ demonstrated both and became a classic; Savage Mode II wants to look like an event, but it’s disorganized, like watching a new franchise movie that’s been diluted through audience-testing. Its Pen & Pixel crafted-cover isn’t enough for it to remind you of any No Limit classics.

The concept of the original Savage Mode was simple: this is what 21 Savage sounds like with Metro Boomin production. It lasted 32 minutes. Also, Future is on one song. It wasn’t great, but if you needed an introduction to either or both artists, it worked. Since that dropped in 2016, both of their profiles have been risen significantly, with Metro’s producer tags and Savage’s knife tattoo achieving hip-hop icon status. A sequel was a no-brainer, especially after the pair’s Offset collaboration Without Warning from 2017. Savage Mode II has a bigger budget and a wider range of concepts, but it’s never more satisfying than when it just lets 21 Savage and Metro Boomin work with the eerie trap sounds of previous work together.

Certainly, any album that opens with narration by Morgan Freeman aims to look grandiose. In 2005, when 50 Cent’s follow-up record The Massacre dropped, you could barely find a movie that didn’t have his baritone dropping in. It’s a little jarring to hear it on an album in 2020, especially this one. Even aside from his fairly recent sexual harassment scandal that registered as a blip in terms of consequence, what purpose does Morgan Freeman serve but just being Morgan Freeman and his familiar voice? A single intro appearance would’ve been fine, but he keeps showing up sporadically through Savage Mode II, and it turns into a further distraction. 

The other big change is the number of relationship songs. Of all the reasons to listen to 21 Savage, getting his take on love isn’t one of them. His deadpan flow and coarse voice could be a great cover for a tender soul looking to let his guard down. In practice, though, these songs sound like label requests for singles that he’s begrudgingly followed. His inspiration on “Mr. Right Now” is limited to name-dropping TLC, Beyoncé, and Sade, before Drake stumbles in with a verse that can’t end soon enough, where he reveals he dated SZA in 2008. She refutes that, partially

While “Mr. Right Now” and closer “Said N Done” are fairly affectionate, its brethren are rather dour. “Rich N—- Shit” only really comes to life with a flow-switching Young Thug feature. The one track here that’s truly bad is “RIP Luv”; its title would be bad enough, but then there are wretched lines like “Yeah, I heard that you slept with a couple fellas / Still treated you like a virgin because I know you better.”

There are plenty of moments on the album where Savage connects emotionally and sounds genuine. “No Opp Left Behind” immediately establishes the conflict between staying true to one’s roots and dealing with global fame. He sounds like he’s in limbo, with Metro’s strings-rich beat being entry music to Heaven or Hell. “My Dawg” starts with a Nipsey Hussle tribute and becomes a sobering glimpse of trauma and its aftermath. His 2019 I.C.E. arrest and the controversy about his birthplace are addressed with gravity and humor (“N—– keep talkin’ that U.K. shit like I don’t got AKs”).

The best moments are when 21 Savage and Metro Boomin stick to their formula and have fun with it. While 808s, dissonant synths, and lyrics about fighting opps can seem like a limited palette to work from, few rappers and producers know to make it as intoxicating as this team-up does on “Slidin’”. Savage sounds fully invested in every line he drops, even bringing some charming singing into the hook, and the beat brings you into the after-hours debauchery. Again, “Many Men” doesn’t reach 50 Cent’s heights, but Savage sounds eager to impress his fellow numerically named rapper. Metro also samples Chromatics’ “Tomorrow Is So Far Away” with a loop that sounds tailor made for this album. 

Savage Mode II doesn’t imply that 21 Savage and Metro Boomin have exhausted their team-up potential. They just need to figure out what works for them and stick with it. “Steppin On N—-s” has Savage sounding like he’s tributing Slick Rick while Metro is tributing a bygone West Coast scene. It’s fun and a whole album of it could be great, but its inclusion further disrupts any semblance of cohesion. In the end, you get 44 minutes of solid beats and bars and a handful of songs to put on your best-of playlists for Savage and/or Metro. That’s not the worst thing, but on Savage Mode II it feels like there’s both too much and not enough going on at once.