May 1, 2017

Art by Ralph Arvesen

Lawrence Neil whispers ’21’ to himself to help fall asleep.

It’s ironically appropriate that 21 Savage’s phrase “Issa knife,” sharply wielded to correct VladTV’s inquiry about the “cross” tattooed on his forehead, became an iconic meme. Remixed, edited versions of the phrase continue to make the rounds throughout social media, popping up on official NBA team twitters and in Frank Ocean lyrics.  It’s even referenced in the name of his current tour, sponsored by Monster Energy—“Issa Tour.” It’s become emblematic of Savage’s, well, savagery.

21 Savage’s raw, bone-dry portrayals of his violence-soaked upbringing and lifestyle stand as a potential antidote of authenticity to a pop culture that feels increasingly packaged. Following last year’s release of his Metro Boomin-assisted record Savage Mode, listeners pounced on this concept: Pitchfork’s Israel Daramola said, “He recounts a life that has known nothing but violence.”  HotNewHipHop wrote, “21 Savage’s shkreet upbringing…is what makes him a compelling figure,” and alluded to the “lucid (and credible) punchlines about his days as a murderer.” HipHopDX’s Eric Diep called him “one of the few street rappers making real street music.”

And Savage leans into this characterization—his recent verse on NBA YoungBoy’s ‘Murder’ remix features the line, “N****s say they from the streets, but bitch I’m still there.”

“I come from that, for real,” Savage stated on an interview with The Breakfast Club, “I know what I’ve been through and how easily it can be taken away. I know the struggle.” Just prior, he had bluntly listed the seemingly endless funerals he’d been to for murdered friends and family. When host DJ Envy asked if he felt numb to death, he replied almost nonchalantly, “Pretty much.”

Not only does Savage claim this history, he also emphasizes his authenticity in relation to frauds in the rap industry. “Artists feel threatened by other artists, especially if they feel like your story authentic and they be lying. [They’re saying,] ‘Here go a real gangster,’” he imagines posturing artists saying about him on the same radio show. It’s reemphasized on “No Heart,” where he raps, “I’m a real street n***a, bitch / I am not one of these n****s bangin’ on wax.

But while wholeheartedly embracing the streets, Savage is also cautiously aware of the troubling, fetishistic cachet that his narratives hold. While being prompted to speak on these gangster tales by the Breakfast Club hosts, Savage responded, in a rare moment of biting rhetoric, “If [I] wasn’t rapping about these things, who would listen to [me]? Would I even be on this platform talking to you if it wasn’t for me saying ignorance to catch people’s attention?”

So while Savage’s serrated response to Vlad was plastered around the internet and media, along with most portrayals of the rapper it morphed into a cartoonishly simple analog for Savage’s “realness.” The meme freed a listener from deeper engagement both with Savage’s sad, tragic history and his resulting numbness while still professing to value that authenticity as a whole.

As he went on to explain in the same VladTV interview and plenty of others, the previously mentioned (issa) knife tattoo was inked in memorial for 21’s murdered friend. Yet the meme and representations of Savage became completely divorced from the reality they reflected—they became the “ignorance to catch people’s attention.”

Savage’s authenticity in the abstract is valued and glamorized, and this cultural value has paved the way to its commodification as well. He is, after all, on this corporate-sponsored tour: “21 Savage personifies the Outbreak brand while bringing the intensity of Monster Energy,” the press release states, which sort of makes me feel gross.

Monster’s virtuous claim in their company bio—“We promote concert tours, so our favorite bands can visit your hometown”—is true. Artists like Savage are coming to my hometown of Cleveland directly because of Monster’s programming efforts, and there’s nothing inherently bad about corporate support of arts and culture. It’s certainly not Monster-specific; their direct competitor, Red Bull, is a prominent actor in this realm as well. Red Bull Music Academy hosts engaging podcasts, avant garde workshops and talks, and a flagship festival whose upcoming edition will feature Solange, Gucci Mane, and Werner Herzog, none of whom are considered sell-outs by any metric.

The issue arises, however, when a third party’s branding of an artist or art form replaces its complexity. In Savage’s case, however, that theft is very subtle as they’ve constructed the brand around that artist’s “authenticity” itself. Focusing commodification on an attractive, easily consumable trait is common, but it’s particularly difficult to unravel when an entire artist’s past, present, and future can just be bundled into the anti-brand brand: Authentic.

Examining trends in this type of commodification as a whole can shed some light on Savage’s case in particular. ®Pepsi’s recent advertisement was sharply rebuked by Twitter fingers, and an easy assumption about the ensuing criticism and discomfort is that we felt shocked that Pepsi would attempt to sell its cola by fumblingly leveraging an abstract ideal and value.

But as Clarkisha Kent pointed out in The Establishment, this is far from the first time that resistance has become corporatized and political ideals have been used to sell shit.  Did this ad provoke such backlash, instead, because the wig-tossing Kendall handing a cop a Pepsi reached idea-based marketing’s uncanny valley?

There isn’t outrage over most other advertisements that leverage abstract beliefs for profit—if anything, the transition from product-based advertising (e.g. “this is a sturdy, robust product”) to idea-based marketing often credited to Steve Jobs (e.g. “this product is freedom and happiness”) has been lauded as visionary. Was Pepsi’s advertisement, then, just heavy-handed enough to provide the very uncomfortable reminder that products—regardless of how they’re marketed—are actually poor replacements for ideals, values, and nuanced engagement?

Monster, Apple, and Pepsi are faulty proxies for the ideas that they claim to represent. Want to be authentic? Talk to a real person. Want to resist? Shut down a freeway. Want to Think Different? Think differently. These valid impulses have recourses other than reinforcing brand loyalty to companies whose underlying value of these ideals is monetary. Of course, that doesn’t mean don’t buy those things—Pepsi tastes good, iPhones are really useful, and Monster Vodkas sustained me through many a college party—but don’t mistake your purchase as an ideal-based act. It’s a line item in an Excel sheet.

How does this tie back to our face-tattooed, no-heart-having Atlantan? It represents a real dilemma. With the knowledge that his story of pain, violence, and loss is being hawked for ticket sales and beverage orders, what should 21 Savage do? How should he react when it’s not just an aspect of his story that has been commodified, but the overarching authenticity of his story itself?  

Anything “real” Savage does just adds fodder to the flame, without necessarily increasing an audience’s engagement with whatever makes up that “realness”. The marketability of his authenticity doesn’t seem to have spurred a deeper dive into the issues that plagued Savage’s youth. Speaking about murdered loved ones or bringing a gun to middle school hasn’t provoked a sharp interest in curbing gun violence on Atlanta’s east side, but it has helped sell out shows. These are notches in the authenticity belt; they’re selling points.

Taking back control of his narrative by shedding these true-life tales would appear to be either overtly profit-averse or, even worse, fake. Furthermore, he values his own authenticity, and with good reason: being true to yourself and your experiences is good. It’s really good. Unfortunately, the same system from whose hyper-packaging we found refuge in Savage’s realness is learning how to hyper-package honesty itself.

Is that okay? Is this just a condition of the commodified, diverse society that we’re a part of of? Maybe.

Savage’s approach to the paradox is to sit within it, narrowing his cognitive scope to himself and the ones he loves.  He treats the potentially paralyzing self-awareness with the same distance that engendered his numbness and facilitates his deadpan delivery.  The sensory buffer he developed to weather and express his traumatic upbringing can apply itself to those trying to leech off his story. If he’s telling his truth and Monster is paying him—who fucking cares?  I envision his response as something similar to what critic Amos Barshad, who wrote a Fader cover story on the rapper, observed: “Savage locks eye contact, nods plainly, says nothing.” A focused gaze, a barely-there shrug, a couple understated bars, and a deposited Monster check. As Metro Boomin noted in a the same piece, “If you ever see 21 Savage do a song with a rapper, it’s because he got paid the way he wanted to get paid.”

Savage appears impervious to external stimuli and influences, musically manifesting itself in his simultaneously entrancing and occasionally frustratingly simplistic lyrics of violence and hedonism.

Here his authenticity comes into play as an artistic asset, as his “real gangster” life experience informs the emotional resonance of his music. As someone who has experienced a broader spectrum of violence and trauma, he is better equipped to represent it in art. Some use it as a substrate for channeling anger, sadness, or pain; Savage uses it as a lens for nihilistic numbness. It becomes a minimalist, brittle composition: grim, no frills lyrics; eerie, controlled trap production; a delivery that is understated veering on monotony, save the incessant and versatile “21” ad lib. The result is purposefully hypnotic, both intensely focused and suggestively kaleidoscopic. “You gotta let ’em digest,” Savage says about his work, “Force them to listen to this over and over.”

Maybe Savage’s suggestion is the only apt prescription for responsible consumption of his music. Don’t swig it down for a quick burst of Real Authentic Street Culture; listen over and over, digest, and hear him on his own terms.

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