Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph is better known to the public as 21 Savage. A 26-year-old Georgia native, the rapper spent most of his life on the streets of Atlanta.
One of 11 children, and the child of a single mother, Savage grew up in poverty. Eventually, he was expelled from school after being caught with a gun. After being kicked out from schools across Atlanta, Savage took to the streets. He sold drugs to make ends meet, landed himself in juvenile detention and waded into murky moral waters.
On his 21st birthday in 2013, Savage was shot six times. His best friend was killed, but he survived, turning to music as an outlet afterward. Now, just three years later, Savage has put out two albums. The latest is I Am > I Was.
Focusing heavily on his difficult past, this sophomore effort highlights some of the tragic events that have shaped who Savage has become. He thanks those who have positively influenced him; but he also threatens naysayers, telling them to watch their backs if they know what’s good for them.
Many songs here include some big names of the moment, such as Post Malone, Offset, J Cole and Childish Gambino, while referencing sex, drug use and violence in an explicit expression about a life laced with tragedy.
It’s clear that 21 Savage led a difficult life while growing up on the hard streets of Atlanta. Songs such as “monster,” “pad lock,” “can’t leave without it,” “all my friends,” “a lot” and “out for the night” all include windows into Savage’s troubled childhood, the things he wishes he could have changed and reflections on how fame can alter you as a person.
In “monster,” he notes, “You can have all the fame in the world/All the money in the world, won’t stop no cry (Straight up).” Similarly, “all my friends” mourns the loss of his friends who are no longer in his life due to success: “Couldn’t pay the light bill, it was dark (Yeah)/Now I can shine in the dark (On God)/Lost a couple friends, I ain’t even really mad though (On God).” And in “a lot,” Savage says he’s praying for those who have been lost to destructive habits since they stepped into the spotlight.
On “pad lock,” Savage opens up about his father, a man who was never present in his life: “I ain’t have a father, he abandoned.” It’s a painful admission, but it’s positive in the sense that we get a glimpse of how that man’s absence has influenced the rapper to want to be a better man himself. And although Savage’s father wasn’t there, his mom was. He says that his mom tried to steer him in the right direction in high school, which we hear about in the song “can’t leave without it.”
Savage continues to praise his mother in “letter 2 my momma,” where he lifts up the woman who gave everything to support her children: “You taught me how to be strong, gotta give praise/When the times got hard, you always made ways (On God)/Even though I barely got new Js (On God)/You made sure the kid kept a temp fade (Straight up).” Now, Savage is taking care of her: “Yes, she got a Range Rover and a Benz, too (On God)/It’s a hard job of women raise men, too (True).”
On “ball w/o you,” Savage admits that he values loyalty over the fleeting feelings of love: “‘Cause love don’t mean jack/See love is just a feeling/You can love somebody and still stab them in the back/… See loyalty is a action/You can love or hate me and still have my back (Facts).” And in “out for the night,” he gives a shout-out to a woman who has faithfully stayed by his side (“Five foot five (Five), she my ride or die (Die).”
“asmr” opens up about the multiple deaths Savage has witnessed, terrible violence he’s experienced from “both side of the gun, I done dealt and felt the pain (On God).”
Each of the 16 songs here has earned an explicit rating, with a myriad of harsh profanity and graphic references to sex, drugs, alcohol, bravado and gun violence on nearly every track.
In “asmr,” we hear this threat: “Playin’ roun with Savage, you get shot in the kidney/So many drums, he gon’ think a band hit him (Ha)/Chopper clapped his a–, he thought a hand hit him.” In multiple other songs, Savage brags about the types of guns he owns and all those he’s used against others. (And it gets pretty intense.)
“1.5” finds him bragging about all the things his money can buy: “Pockets on Cheez-Its, heavy on the cheddar (Cheddar)/ … Too much drip, I’m rainin’, bought a Gucci umbrella.” A few songs include references to stripping, where Savage doesn’t mind paying to see certain women shed their clothes.
“break da law” references graphic sex multiple times. And “a&t” focuses on women who don’t want to have sex with men unless they have a lot of money: “100 bad b–ches in the club on some hustle s—/If you ain’t breaking bread, please don’t touch a b–ch.” Other songs include multiple references to pornographic, violent sex.
Savage also brags about all the pills and alcohol he can provide in “4L”: “The beans, I got X, dawg, 75 cents a pill (Free Tez).” And in “good day,” the rapper says that his day has been made better by the prescription drug Actavis. Other drugs and alcohol mentioned include Codeine, weed, dope, lean and cocaine.
In an interview with Breakfast Club Power, Savage said, “I want to tell my story, but I don’t want you to live my story.” This is a good thing. It’s good that this rising rapper recognizes that his life is not one he’d want for his own children (he has three kids). But just because he asks his listeners not to follow his example, doesn’t mean they’ll heed those words.
In fact, as parents, you’d probably think that the opposite is true. Yes, Savage has had an incredibly difficult life. One that many can’t relate to. But if kids are listening to this, if they’re listening to his multiple references to gun violence, drugs and sex, it may be planting seeds about choices they wouldn’t have considered otherwise—not to mention the multitude of profanities here that are almost sure to have a coarsening influence on anyone who puts Savage on repeat.
I’m glad that 21 Savage feels he is greater than he once was. We should all be moving forward in positive directions, some of which show up here. But too often, I Am > I Was also veers in directions that are much more destructive than they are redemptive.
Kristin Smith joined the Plugged In team in 2017. Formerly a Spanish and English teacher, Kristin loves reading literature and eating authentic Mexican tacos. She and her husband, Eddy, love raising their children Judah and Selah. Kristin also has a deep affection for coffee, music, her dog (Cali) and cat (Aslan).