Album Review: 21 Savage, i am > i was

Weeks before his shocking U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) arrest, Shayaa Bin Abraham-Joseph, commonly known by his stage name 21 Savage, released his latest album, i am > i was.

His arrest completely blindsided the internet and has definitely taken the spotlight off his album.

ICE initially claimed that 21 Savage entered the U.S. from the United Kingdom legally in 2005, but overstayed his visa. In 2005, he would have been 14, which would contradict many of his lyrics about growing up in Atlanta and essentially prove his entire public persona to be false.

If you have listened to any of 21 Savage’s music, he often references his troubled past growing up in Atlanta’s housing project, Zone 6, and his constant dealings with drugs and violence; this news would come as a complete bombshell.

Now, Abraham-Joseph’s legal team is claiming that he was only seven when he first entered the United States, which seems to be the correct story. His lawyers claim that he visited the United Kingdom when he was 14 for approximately a month, which is where the confusion began.

ICE is currently seeking 21 Savage’s deportation from the States and he is currently under their custody in Georgia, awaiting a trial from a federal immigration court.

Since the news broke, many rappers including Cardi B, Young Thug and Offset have come out in support of 21 Savage and the Black Lives Matter movement, starting a petition to stop his deportation. 21 Savage posted bail and was released from the ICE detention center on Feb. 13, after having spent over a week in custody.

Now, let’s get to his music. The evolution of 21 Savage has truly been something to observe. He only started rapping in 2013 and released his first mixtape, The Slaughter Tape, in 2015. The music he was releasing during this period was very raw and you could tell that he hadn’t been rapping for very long.

However, his brutal lyrics attracted an audience and he became an underground sensation in Atlanta. His 2015 single, “Red Opps,” gained national attention and helped him make it onto the 2016 XXL Freshman List.

All of this led up to his first major project, Savage Mode, a joint album with producer Metro Boomin, which was a huge success. The project had two records go Platinum, “X” and “No Heart”, while the album itself went gold. Metro Boomin’s eerie, hypnotic beats paired perfectly with 21 Savage’s montone yet ruthless delivery.

Despite the success of his early work, 21 Savage has had an extremely dynamic path to stardom and it shows on i am > i was; he has grown in almost every way since Savage Mode. His delivery and lyricism have matured and he’s not afraid to be more experimental and take more risks with his music. 21 Savage shows all of this in the three track run of  “asmr”, “ball w/o you” and “good day”.

On “asmr,” he switches the flow three times in the first 30 seconds of the song, then goes into a whisper to deliver a verse that gives the song its title. This shows his growth from his early work where he would usually give one uncreative, monotone verse over a sleepy instrumental.

On the following track, “ball w/o you,” Savage gives us a very introspective track about an ex-relationship. Here, he looks back on how much he lost when this relationship ended and how he now wishes he could enjoy his wealth and fame with this person by his side. This is one of the only tracks that we have ever seen 21 Savage showing us an emotional side. On “good day,” he goes back to his roots, claiming he had a good day because he “ain’t have to spray the K [AK-47], drank lean, and sold a brick of cocaine.” Vintage 21 Savage, indeed.

One of i am > i was greatest strengths is the features on the album. J. Cole keeps his streak of stunning features going with his verse on “a lot”. Yung Miami of City Girls adds a great verse to “a&t”, which adds to the authenticity of the perfect club anthem. Post Malone links up with 21 Savage again and takes his talents to “all my friends”, a song completely different from everything else on the album.


Childish Gambino adds an extremely smooth verse to “monster,” which makes the song an absolute juggernaut. Finally, Young Nudy gives a vicious yet tidy verse to the final track of the album, “4L”. 21 Savage did a great job of selecting his features as they all add something different to the project and mesh well with 21 Savage’s style.


I believe that i am > i was is a late nomination for Best Rap Album, in my book. The diversity Savage shows from beginning to end makes for great replay value and is why I cannot stop listening to it nearly two months after it was released. There is no true weak spot on the album, either; every song offers something that makes the album greater overall. If you look at 21 Savage’s music from three years ago and compared it to this, you would agree with him; 21 Savage now is > than he ever was.

Max SmithComment