In the lobby of Sony’s blindingly-bright Madison Square headquarters in Manhattan, the topic of conversation turns to evolution — specifically with regards to 21 Savage, the 24-year-old rapper whose debut LP for Epic Records/Slaughter Gang, Issa Album, was released July 7. Savage, born Shayaa Joseph and raised in Atlanta, has emerged over the past two years as one of the most captivating young MCs in the game, known both for his aloof, monotone flow and his dark, brooding lyrics that capture the underside of street life in icy, dead-eyed detail. But as his musical resume and overall celebrity have grown, his managers and label reps have seen him grow in lock step.
“I just feel like I’m becoming a better person,” Savage says an hour later when asked about his own view on his evolution. “My music is just getting better. Learning the game better, learning how to move, learning how to create; everything’s just growing. Recording is just like practice, getting better all the time.”
Savage and his team are slightly biased on this point. But the numbers back up that growth: two days earlier, Issa debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200 with a surprisingly-robust 77,000 equivalent album units, the highest showing of anyone in the musical universe that week — that is, everyone except JAY-Z, whose 4:44 came in at No. 1 two weeks after its release. And it’s backed up by the music, too; following the cinematically-ominous sound and dispassionately violent attitude of last year’s breakout EP Savage Mode, expertly crafted by producer-of-the-moment Metro Boomin, Issa is a notable expansion in both production and subject matter. Case in point: “FaceTime,” the album’s mobile-savvy (or, given how drunk the song’s protagonist admits to being on its hook, mobile-sloppy) centerpiece, is a DJ Mustard production with Savage rapping about, of all things, love.
“I put my all into ‘FaceTime,’ just trying to do something different,” he says, sitting on the rooftop of the Sony building on a scorching hot New York summer afternoon. “I just be trying to reflect that I’m versatile, that I don’t just gotta rap about the same thing.”
That desire to break out of a box, to escape definition and predictability, is a theme Savage returns to over and over again, one that he seems to dwell on more than most: expansion. Progress. Growth. Evolution. It’s why he opened “Nothin’ New,” far and away among the best cuts on Issa, with the line, “They thought I only rapped about murder and pistols.” “I just be trying to let people know that I’m deeper than this, than what they think I am,” he says. “They trying to put me into a box. That’s why I did shit like ‘FaceTime,’ just to let ’em know that I can do it all. It just takes time. I got a long way to go.”
Maybe it was the searing, unrelenting attitude of Savage Mode, clocking in at a brisk 30 minutes, that gave people the impression that Savage was just another one-note street rapper from the capital of hip-hop’s southern tier. Maybe it’s the signature knife tattooed on his forehead — the source of the “Issa knife!” meme that lent the album its name — that, coupled with his lyrics and generally reserved demeanor, led people to jump to conclusions. Maybe it’s that, particularly in this age of non-stop information, it’s easier for people to wrap their heads around an artist if they fit neatly in a box, predictable and easy.
But 21 Savage has no intention of standing still, mummified in the mold in which the public first came to know him. For Issa, he eschewed the standard rollout strategy, with no lead single to build buzz and just a one-week heads up that the album would be out at all. Even the song “Issa” featuring Drake and Young Thug, thought to be the title track to the album when it leaked in May, was surprisingly cut from the final tracklist. (“Everybody expected it to be on the album; that’s why I didn’t put it on there,” he says with a smile. “I’ll put it out — might be tomorrow, might be 2030 — but it’s gonna come out one day.”) Savage seems to enjoy playing the role of the enigma, the contradiction; there’s a freedom in it, in a way.
“I don’t want to be predictable: ‘Oh, he dropped a single, his album’s coming out, he’s got this feature or that feature or that feature,'” he says. “I just come out of nowhere and get to No. 2.”
July 7, release day, arrived as a typical day; hanging out by the pool with his new girlfriend Amber Rose, trying on clothes for a fitting, an evening bowling session with the people from the record label, then back to the house in L.A. to watch documentaries — he and Rose just finished watching The Keepers on Netflix — before falling asleep. It’s that relationship with Rose which has turned him into TMZ fodder. She accompanies him almost everywhere these days, including to the Sony roof; later, when Savage and his team walk out to the car waiting on busy Madison Avenue, a paparazzi photographer would excitedly step out from around a corner to snap photos of the couple in their brief seconds on a public street. Her celebrity has meant their relationship must exist under the blaze of the bright tabloid lights, and while they seem to genuinely, deeply care about each other, he’s received his share of wise cracks about going soft, about being in love, about actually caring about someone — being happy, of all damned things.
“Everything you do somebody’s got something to say about it,” he says about the glare of the public eye. “You’re being watched by the world. You can be you, but you can’t really be you. And when you are being you, people always got something to say about it. That’s the only thing I don’t like; people always got something to say about my life. I don’t know nothing about their life. People just judge you when they don’t even know you.”
Is it tough having a relationship in the public eye?
“I wouldn’t call it tough, ’cause I don’t really give a fuck,” he says. “I don’t care about what nobody say or how nobody feel. I’m happy, I’m living my life, and that’s what it is.”
That’s right — 21 Savage is happy. He’s got the No. 2 album in the country, second only to a living legend twice his age. He’s living in L.A., where he recorded the majority of the album. (“L.A. more like a cooler vibe, and you don’t really gotta watch over your shoulder like that. So I was in a happier space.”) He’s got his foot in the door of the established, with a well-received debut album and the promise of a lucrative tour on the horizon, whenever he decides to take it on. He’s in conversations with brands — “Money and good opportunities” — for endorsements, and has his sights set on acting one day. And he’s got a girlfriend who makes him happy and who understands through experience that life as a celebrity isn’t always private jets and Ferraris — though there’s plenty of that, too. For a rapper who roared out of the gate and onto the Hot 100 with a song called “No Heart,” suddenly, life is good.
When Billboard last spoke with Savage back in December, a time in which he had four songs on the Hot 100 at once — two from Savage Mode, and one apiece with Drake and Meek Mill — the question of success, and its definition for him, came up. Back then, he described it in terms of career goals; success was to have such a strong track record that he could release an album that bricked, whether critically or commercially, and have it not matter because his previous work spoke for itself. Now, that answer remains the same in a professional sense, but he has another answer, too.
“It ain’t really no dollar amount, it ain’t no status. You can’t measure it with status or anything, you know what I mean?” he says. “It’s just happiness. Happiness is success to me.”
So right now, you’re feeling successful?
“Yeah. I’m happy.”