If there has been one single turning point in 21 Savage‘s life so far, it would have to be the night he turned 21, the night the bullets flew and connected, the night that he lost his best friend. Just before midnight on a Tuesday in October 2013, Savage — born Shayaa Joseph — was ambushed on the east side of his hometown Atlanta and shot six times before he could grab the perpetrator’s gun and fire back. His attacker was arrested; Savage was rushed to a hospital. Police called it a shootout. The media, save for an initial report, never followed up.
Savage doesn’t avoid the topic, but he doesn’t give much detail, either. Much like the music he releases, the 24-year-old can be dour, serious, almost detached in a way, yet relentlessly real. “It just made me slow down in the street,” he says, matter-of-factly, of that pivotal night. “I had to find something else to do. So rapping was what I did.”
Three years later, 21 Savage — the “21” is taken from his neighborhood growing up, the “Savage” from his pre-rapping, gun-toting life — is the hottest young rapper among hip-hop’s elite. Along with his single “X” (featuring Future), which is No. 37 on the Dec. 10 Billboard Hot 100 and appears on his collaborative project with Metro Boomin, Savage Mode, he recently hopped on Meek Mill’s “Offended” as well as “Sneakin'” from frequent Meek adversary Drake, making him a sort of neutral Switzerland between the two beefing rap titans.
“They both want to be the best they can be and they both want to be No. 1, so they’re just competing,” he says dismissively. “It’s just, Drake my homie, Meek my homie. Beef, to me, is like when n—as is ready to kill each other. That’s the type of beef I’m used to, you feel me?”
Savage was expelled from the public school system of Georgia’s Dekalb County for bringing a gun to class in the seventh grade, and dropped out by ninth grade. After he was shot, another local rapper, Key! from Mike WiLL Made-It-affiliated group Two-9, introduced him to producers Sonny Digital and Metro Boomin and brought Savage with him on press trips and performances, showing him “what management is, what labels is. Just the basics about being a rapper, you know?”
Soon, Savage was developing his skills on “Skrrt Skrrt” and “Woah,” both of which appeared on his debut, The Slaughter Tape, in May 2015. Two more projects, Free Guwop and Slaughter King, came out before the end of that year, drawing national and major-label attention. But it wasn’t until the July release of Savage Mode that his sound — an eerily calm delivery over spare, menacing Metro beats — congealed into a distinct aesthetic.
Savage’s lyrics evoke an indifferent, almost aloof character equally at ease rapping about money, women or, as he puts it on “No Heart,” firing “so many shots, the neighbor … thought it was Fourth of July.” Combined with his quiet intensity, street-tales past and the large, crucifix-esque dagger tattooed between his eyes, Savage has acquired a certain reputation in the mainstream, even as he’s tried to deal with fame by cutting back on social media. “[People] think I’m a demon. They try to make me look like a bad guy,” he says. “I ain’t no good guy, but I ain’t just all evil, either.”
Savage Mode arrived on his own imprint, Slaughter Gang, and he kept his team small while resisting labels’ advances. (For the most part, Savage has just two managers: Meezy, who developed a promotions and marketing background working with 2 Chainz; and Kei, who has managed Two-9 (with Meezy) and Key! as well as Siya, who appeared on Oxygen’s Sisterhood of Hip-Hop in 2014.) And as the album kept climbing — it is No. 35 on the Billboard 200 in its 19th week, while “X” and “No Heart” (No. 57) continue rising up the Hot 100 — it caught the attention of Drake, who called him a “young king with all the juice right now” on Instagram in October. (Drake also recently gifted him a red Ferrari, according to Savage.)
Drake’s “Sneakin’” became Savage’s highest-charting hit to date following its October release, reaching No. 28 on the Hot 100, and in early November “X” was officially certified platinum. Days later, Savage signed with Epic Records, home to collaborators Future and Travi$ Scott.
”Major [labels] should be like the NBA: You should have to go to college, train, go to practice, camp, try out,” he says. “I done did the hard work. It didn’t just come to me because I got a cool song and my pop owned a label.”
Savage will end 2016 on the road supporting Young Thug, before he gets to work on what will be his major-label debut. Not that he’s one to pat himself on the back. “I’m not really focused on the applause, the claps; I’m just doing my music, making my money, keeping my head down,” he says. “I represent a n—a comin’ from nothin’ to somethin’ and adapting and changing his ways for the better. Shit, I got three songs on the Billboard chart, a Ferrari.” He pauses and shrugs. “I don’t know how else to explain it.”
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 10 issue of Billboard.