Ghostface Killers: The Enduring Vitality of Without Warning

Son Raw revisits the thunderous 21 Savage/Offset/Metro Boomin collaboration.
By    October 7, 2018

Son Raw’s on demand.

The music industry, now fully swole off streaming revenue and eager to reassert control over listeners weaned off illegal downloads, is all about ‘the event’ – the perennially unsatisfying major label album that gathers more pre-release hype and first day spins than genuine listens and love. If industry heads had their way, you’d be forced to listen to nothing but event records – force fed the same way Hollywood endlessly cycles through market-tested action reboots and dull, moralizing prestige flicks.

Thankfully, the accessibility of music-making and online distribution conspires to prevent that, but even in a climate where side projects, mixtapes, and surprise releases abound, Offset, 21 Savage & Metro Boomin’s Without Warning, which dropped 11 months ago, stands as a singular release. Dark, violent and completely unconcerned with clout chasing, it’s a rare glimpse into the kind of music you’d wish more major label stars would have the courage to release, and a superstar trap album that hasn’t been bested since.

It wasn’t the Migos colab we expected either. While everyone was waiting for Travis and Quavo to drop, a duo whose Huncho Jack disappointed a few months later, Offset, 21 and Metro blindsided us on Halloween. Thematically, the concept was simple: a modern update on the blood splattered southern horrorcore of early Three 6 Mafia, supercharged for the modern era.

Metro Boomin’s inspired production, a minimal selection of bells, chimes, howls and bass ensured that at the very least, the album would be listenable. More interesting however, was how the collision of Offset’s verbal acrobatics and 21 Savage’s deadpan would accentuate both rappers’ strengths in a way we never knew we needed. At their peak, Migos’ music is a verbal pinball machine, with syllables bouncing off bumpers and igniting shiny, distracting lights. 21 meanwhile, operates in a world so dead eyed and drugged out, that one could assume that he’d fade into the background next to Offset. He doesn’t, as each rapper serves as the perfect foil for the other.

Free from Quavo’s pop hooks and comparatively sunny beat selection, Offset doubles down on his high-speed triplets, propelling the track forward before 21 comes in and slams the breaks, deadening the moment and resetting your internal clock’s tempo to a crawl. It’s the sort of trick adventurous dance music producers try by switching their beats to double time midway through, but here, the overall tempo stays the same, it’s the performers who deliver radically different takes.

Of the two, Offset’s verses are more engaging – he spent 2017 on a tremendous run hell bent to disprove anyone ready to attribute Migos’ success to Quavo, and while no single performance matches his clinic on Gucci Mane’s Met Gala, he never once slacks off. On solo cut “Ric Flair Drip,” he even abandons his group’s usual tempo for a more Mustard inspired boogie, delivering a tribute to the wrestling icon so on point, Ric Flair recently walked out to it for his own wedding.

Wisely, 21 Savage never tries to compete on Offset’s own turf, preferring to serve up atmosphere and practically become part of Metro Boomin’s misty, nocturnal production. A key collaborator of Metro’s, he pushes the producer to his darkest extremes, and serves as a blunt instrument reinforcing the tape’s horror movie setting and aesthetic. This isn’t Outkast, the stakes are far too low and the ambitions for too eye level for that, but as far as Atlanta duo’s picking up on Dre and Big Boi’s yin yang approach to the mic, you could do a lot worse.

Dropping midway between the world-conquering Culture and the ultimately overstuffed and disappointing Culture II, Without Warning was also the peak of the Migos hype cycle, the moment where this kind surprise drop still excited fans who’d be complaining about a lack of quality control (yeah pun intended) just a few months later. It also showed a way forward for 21 Savage, a singular rapper whose limited range nevertheless became an Achilles heel across an entire solo project.

Finally, recalling both Offset and 21’s pre-fame mixtapes, Without Warning was a gift to core supporters: a rap fan’s rap album, unconcerned with pop radio pablum on one end or critic-baiting self-importance on the other. Everyone involved in Without Warning had a keen understanding that from the trap houses to the Internet forums lay a legion of listeners who just want creeping beats and hard rhymes, and by delivering on the promise of that concept while cutting out the filler, they dropped a project that still hasn’t been matched in trap music in the year since it’s release. I suspect that it’s a record whose importance and influence will only grow over the years, long after the event records that surround it fade from memory.

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