Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
February 24, 2024

21 Savage's American Dream is the same blood-soaked nightmare

By TIMOTHY MCSHEA | January 26, 2024

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21 Savage releases his third solo studio album with a familiar theme under a slightly different context.

Two weeks ago, on Jan. 12, 2024, British-American rapper 21 Savage (commonly referred to as 21) came out with his third solo LP and sixth studio album overall (including collaborations). The title, American Dream, references his British nationality and early immigration to the U.S. when he was seven years old.

The album was announced alongside a supposed biopic titled American Dream: The 21 Savage Story, starring 21 himself alongside rapper-producer-actor Donald Glover and Caleb McLaughlin from Stranger Things. The trailer for the film was satirical in tone, but very few questioned whether the film was based on true events, myself included. The joke’s on me, though — as I wrote this, an interview with 21 on ex-NFL athlete Shannon Sharpe’s podcast Club Shay Shay was released, in which 21 states quite clearly that the trailer was a joke. Despite 21’s insistence of the trailer’s comic intentions, this was undoubtedly a promotional stunt to gain more intrigue. I admire the plot twist, but not its implications.

I had first intended to discuss the possibilities for this biopic in further detail, but taking into account this new information, it seems this isn’t a soundtrack album at all. For this reason, I’ll focus on the music itself, without any further mention of this glorified stunt.

This project comes five years after his last solo project, i am > i was and just a little over a year after his last collaborative project with rapper-singer Drake, Her Loss, which topped the billboards near the end of 2022. 21 has kept active even in this brief transition between albums, acquiring features on Travis Scott’s immensely popular Utopia and Drake’s extensive album, For All the Dogs

In fact, 21 is rarely known in a solitary context — three of his top five songs all-time (in terms of Spotify streams) are features (“rockstar” on Post Malone’s beerbongs & bentleys, “Creepin’” on Metro Boomin’s HEROES AND VILLAINS, and “Jimmy Cooks” on Drake’s contentious album, Honestly, Nevermind). Even his two most relevant albums, Savage Mode and Without Warning, are both collaborations with Metro Boomin, a prolific producer who elevates every project he touches.

This solo album was a perfect opportunity for 21 to establish his own creative vision, without distractions, for the first time in five years. The features and verses on collaboration albums showed us very little of 21’s life, which is why the immigration debacle of 2019, in which 21 was seized by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) on the charge of an expired H-4 visa, came as such a surprise. If there was ever a time to open up and discuss this through his music, it was this solo album.

Despite this, it’s safe to say that this album does represent a shift in 21’s openness about his past. The title track is a spoken-word verse from 21’s mother, Heather Carmillia Joseph, in which she recounts how the two of them first moved from the U.K. to the U.S. to search for better opportunities for her son. Her mission, as she states, was always for her son “to become a man and live free in his American dream.”

Moving to a different country at the age of seven, hiding (or at least being silent on) your country of origin and then having that fact violently ripped out of you and displayed to the public seems very traumatizing, at least to me. There is a bright side, though: identity — including national origin — has become one of the most important factors in artistic expression, at least in the 21st century. Though the original arrest must have been traumatic, 21 could have found solace in his right to express this identity through his music.

Instead, 21 took a much more standard approach: his national origin makes the headlines, yet 21 seems to have a strong preference for one of his other identities — a stone-cold killer.

There are very few lines that actually address 21’s British upbringing, the challenges he faced in transitioning to American culture or any of the trauma tied to his ICE arrest. Through the many lines in between his half-baked references to these events, we get him euphemizing murder with his chorus in “redrum” (murder spelled backwards) and bragging about his money and supposed blood-soaked past. This is nothing new: since 21 started rapping, he’s put on this murderous guise as a choice aesthetic, greatly influenced by the horror-themed hip hop group Three 6 Mafia. 

Is it too much to ask for substance? Honestly, maybe it is. 21 is known for this aesthetic, so why should we expect anything different? In the grand scheme of current hip hop, with so-called “mumble” or punk rappers, like Playboi Carti and Ken Carson, focusing more than ever on flow and ad-libs over lyrical ability, 21 isn’t even the worst example of a less lyrically resonant rapper. On this album especially, some tracks are more than substantive. For example, in “letter to my brudda” and “red sky,” 21 commentates on rapper Gunna’s plea deal in the racketeering and gang conspiracy trial of Young Stoner Life (YSL) records, which has prolonged fellow YSL member Young Thug’s persecution.

Though this is 21 Savage’s known style, taken on its own, I personally feel that this album doesn’t live up to the title’s implications. While I acknowledge 21’s right to express the identities he finds most important, I also can’t see this “murderer” facade as anything more than a lazy, worn-out aesthetic which 21 continues to exploit. That being said, there are some standout songs which are really catchy, such as “née-nah” and “red sky,” both of which have decent enough verses focused on weaving flows that work perfectly with the beat. I was impressed with 21’s performances and the orchestral-opera sample flips. Though the project seems to fall flat of its supposed purpose, I can appreciate it for pursuing a familiar aesthetic with a refreshing context.


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