“The mission is as it’s always been: For my son to become a man and live free in his American dream.” This is the last line of “american dream,” the first song on 21 Savage’s new album of the same name. The spoken word introduction is performed by his mother, Heather Joseph, and serves as a moving thesis for the album’s heady concept; namely, how do you pay back the people who sacrificed everything for your success?
Earlier in her verse, Joseph explains: “And what I wanted was an afterthought/ The idea of providing him proper chances/ Helped me to never stop moving forward.” This idea animates the entire album, if not on a line-by-line level than in the ethos that Savage outlines throughout the project. The streets call, friends die, hardships ensue. And yet, he keeps going, because that’s how mom taught him to be.
The album is at its best when 21 taps into this pathos. The dead-eyed nihilism of Savage Mode is almost entirely gone, and even the victory lap theatrics of i am > i was don’t really appear. There’s no need for gimmicks like on Issa Album or Savage Mode II. Instead, american dream is 21 Savage at his most deeply intimate, treating the recording booth like a diary, examining his life and career from a 30,000 foot view.
Savage isn’t bitter on his latest offering, but he knows his worth; his family has worked too long and too hard for him to slip up or be taken advantage of. On “letter to my brudda,” which features a crisp soul sample and shimmering organ-like synths, 21 raps: “I watched everybody turn on my brother like he ain’t have them out here flying jets and fucking bitches.”
A bit later on the cut, during the interlude, 21 explains it as explicitly as ever before: “You know, we be coming from, like, the worst conditions, the worst circumstances/ The trenches, the gutter/ And sometimes we be forced to make decisions that we don’t even wanna make.” This is american dream at its best. More often than not, 21 operates in this mode. On “see the real,” chiptune voices and a jerky drum groove provide a spacious backdrop for Savage to bare his soul.
The aforementioned dead-eyed nihilism that had mostly departed makes a return on “see the real” when 21 raps: “Another body get dropped, I don’t feel different.” During the chorus he adds: “My dog don’t want nothing out of life but to kill n-ggas/ And they wonder why I’m still with them.” This is the tension that infuses american dream‘s strongest moments. You can practically hear the angel and demon on 21’s shoulders. He’s stuck between trying to be good, trying to honor the effort and sacrifices his mother made, and being drawn back to his crew, back to the deals and the cash and everything that came with it. Humanity is what makes this record succeed.
“pop ur shit” is formulaic Atlanta trap, but it works because of Metro Boomin’s beat and a more-alien-than-usual guest feature from Young Thug. Even with these positives, there are a few moments on the album where 21 can’t stay out of his own way. At one point during “pop ur shit” he has the temerity to rap: “It smell like gas, I think somebody pooped.” It would be funny if it wasn’t so embarrassing.
Speaking of low points, keeping a song like “red sky” off the album is what A&Rs are paid for. The formulaic pop-rap cut begins with an introduction from Mikky Ekko which probably should have been sung by Skylar Grey if they wanted to do things correctly. Strings swell above a piano line, and they’re so ham-fisted that anyone with a pulse and GarageBand could have come up with a better sound. And once again, 21 opts to rap about feces: “Live on the toilet, I stay on my shit.” It’s perplexing.
These failures are all the more frustrating because they’re surrounded by some of 21 Savage’s best work to date. The tension that fuels this album is exciting, dynamic, and worth examining. It’s when 21 sits back and coasts or tries to land a radio hit that this record comes up short. It’s like he has to forget his media training before he can begin to explore the most interesting parts of his psyche.
In 2019, 21 Savage was detained by ICE and almost deported from the US. It’s the flip side of the American dream, the stuff they don’t teach you in school. Everything you work for can be taken away, and there doesn’t need to be a particularly good reason for it. american dream is a victory when it’s about this. At its weakest — which comes at the hands of a few iffy missteps — 21 Savage is, as he would put it, full of crap.
RELEASE DATE: January 12, 2024
RECORD LABEL: Slaughter Gang/Epic
Listen to american dream below: