"Are things better or worse the second time around? Can we really do anything more than once?" the actor Morgan Freeman asks in 21 Savage and Metro Boomin's new collaborative album, Savage Mode II. Hollywood might shrug at the first question, though it has certainly answered the second loud and clear. Typically Hollywood is guiltier than even hip-hop for cashing in on nostalgia by way of sequels. But on Friday, the same day Savage Mode II dropped, the James Bond film No Time to Die became the latest splashy sequel pushed back to 2021, which could tank Hollywood's bottom line once and for all this year. Unless Wonder Woman 1984 premieres as scheduled this Christmas Day, Savage Mode II will stand as the rare blockbuster sequel in the COVID-19 era, complete with the Hollywood treatment.
The original, an independent EP released in 2016, was part of a winning streak for Metro Boomin as executive producer and auteur, following Future's DS2 and a collaborative project with Drake, What a Time to Be Alive. And while 21 Savage had released mixtapes prior to that, and he had even worked with Metro on one-off songs, Savage Mode was where a star was born. It was smirking, introverted stickup rap, exposing the gun violence affecting 21 Savage's life in a Black mecca. "It ain't all money and drugs like the picture is painted. It's a lot of gangsta s*** going on in Atlanta," he said to XXL in 2015. Yet its platinum-selling singles "X" and "No Heart" also established both artists as unflinching arbiters of cool, as they went on to collaborate with Cardi B, J. Cole, Lana Del Rey, Migos, Post Malone and The Weeknd.
There's just one moment in Savage Mode II where the rap duo try to replicate a formula. Just like in the original, with "Feel Me," the sequel winds down with a penultimate song by Zaytoven ("RIP Luv") where 21 Savage mourns a life without love. Overall, Savage Mode II could have sounded as self-serious as the original, where even a boast about a 12-car garage (one that has become a running joke since) sounds like a matter of life or death. Yet, it does so to different ends. Consider how Savage Mode II begins: Metro Boomin's searching keys add a sense of near cartoonish dread, cribbing more liberally from John Carpenter's slasher flick playbook than he has before. Freeman, the album's narrator, lays out how this rap reunion is a meeting of two accomplished minds ("whether from a savage land, or a booming metropolis"). This is all before 21 Savage actually lets out an evil laugh, before he yells "p******" and distances himself from his past. "Called my first one Savage Mode / my mood, that's what it was," he raps. "2016, we was runnin' around, beating up n***** in the club."
By comparison, Savage Mode II is a big-budget revenge thriller, in a genre where the one-rapper, one-producer format already generates so much excitement, albeit in a year where upstarts and underground luminaries have dominated. From accommodating Drake to depicting shopping sprees, the leisurely two-song stretch from "Mr. Right Now" to "Rich N**** Shit" feels like entering the Copacabana not from in line like plebes, but through the service entrance and kitchen. There are stunts to behold, like "My Dawg"'s slow-motion thrill, where Metro Boomin's hi-hats and 21 Savage's darting threats begin out of sync but come into lockstep when the snares kick in. "Slidin" also boasts tautly choreographed consonance and internal rhymes, showing the strides 21 has made as a lyricist in less than five years: "When it's smoke, we huddle, so many shots, damn near shot each other / AR st—st-stutter, Draco brown, look like peanut butter / Don't play tic-tac-toe or tit-for-tat, n****, this ain't that / He was talking gangster on them tracks, 'til I got him whacked." The point this time is pure spectacle.
The John Wick comparison in that same song is also apt: Savage Mode II is a world that bears no morals but is full of rules. After having played God twice before, Freeman relishes in channeling his inner Vincent Price, as he explains that distinction in "Snitches and Rats." That moment seemed to anticipate his name trending on Twitter, as fans imagined that he was speaking directly to Tekashi 6ix9ine, who, in 2019, agreed to cooperate with authorities after pleading guilty to racketeering, firearm possession and drug trafficking charges.
Hip-hop bears a reputation for gritty realism, and Savage Mode II acknowledges that, with how "Many Men" samples from 50 Cent's 2003 debut Get Rich or Die Tryin'. Typically, being called an actor is a slight. However, the day before Savage Mode II dropped, 21 Savage appeared on the Big Facts podcast to debunk that notion. "I feel like people take [hip-hop] too serious," he said. "Denzel Washington made a gazillion dollars being a million different people. I feel like the world needs to look at rappers the same way."
Co-host Big Bank Black was dubious: "So when you poppin' all this s*** in the music, what you talking about then? Training Day?" But 21 insisted on driving that point home. "You want to go to jail, or you want to go home? I'm Denzel," he said.
This could be for fun, though it could also well be out of self-protection. In an age when hip-hop continues to be criminalized and prosecutors cite rap lyrics as evidence, 21 Savage would rather defend himself. 21 Savage's 2019 arrest by U.S. immigration authorities shocked fans, in part because the original Savage Mode, taking place in East Atlanta, played out like the authorized backstory. Savage Mode II only allows one song, "My Dawg," where 21 Savage addresses facing deportation for allegedly overstaying his visa. "No social security, couldn't get a license, but I still didn't complain," he raps, explaining how a post-9/11 immigration policy affected his livelihood prospects. Yet "My Dawg"'s tone isn't indignant, just irritated. One year after he publicly called for automatic citizenship of immigrant children, 21 shuts down further questions about his still-pending case at this time: "N***** keep talking that UK shit like I don't got AKs / Like, 'cause I was born overseas, these m************ ain't gon' spray spray," he says.
In response, Savage Mode II presents a stylistic intervention. The rap duo uses this installation, more so than the original, to toe a line between authoritativeness and absurdity — draw a boundary, however blurry, between reality and fiction. 21 Savage's de facto ad-lib is "On God," though now it's not about the autobiographical details, but how convincing he sounds. And with that, Savage Mode II confirms this rap duo, as we came to know them in 2016, as deserving of a franchise.