"I understand the rules of karma," 21 Savage said about constantly facing death during his Breakfast Club interview in the summer of 2016. "Most people be like 'Why did it happen? Why this? Why that?' I know when you make certain decisions, you got to know, certain stuff gon' happen." That grip on cause-and-effect seemed to be a surprise for many who'd heard 21's collaborative tape with Metro Boomin, Savage Mode, a few weeks prior to his talk with DJ Envy and Charlamagne Tha God. The nine-track project was 21's introduction to the mainstream, and it framed him as a frightening, Jason Voorhees type of character, addicted to blood and gore with little to no remorse for his victims. But the more 21 spoke, it was clear that, if the right ingredients were in place, he'd have a lot more to share than the ways he's made somebody's blood splatter set to menacing production.
Those ingredients are presumably in place right now as the Atlanta rapper's debut studio album, Issa Album, is his most well-rounded body of work to date. 21's ability to offer a range in sound shouldn't be a surprise, though, when you look beyond Savage Mode. If anything, that project was a curious shift for an artist who had already proven his diversity. Just a year before, on his Slaughter Tape, 21 wielded a variety of flows and vocal inflections, frequently utilizing a high-pitched yelp for emphasis ("Pimp" and "Picky").
As much as Issa Album expands on 21's sound, though, it's a more ambitious project than its predecessors in every way. On the album's Zaytoven and Metro Boomin-produced track "Nothin' New," the rapper appropriately opens with "They thought I only rapped about murder 'n' pistols," before giving what feels like a semi-autobiographical update on the ills of urban, black America. That proclamation sets the tone for his new album but also harkens back to that interview on The Breakfast Club, where 21 also discussed his reluctance to adopt superstitious worldviews: "I just believe in cause and effect." That philosophy permeates throughout the whole of Issa. As he continues to experience what is still a brand new life, keeping that school of thought will be crucial to 21's ability to grow.
There is a looming sadness to "Nothin' New" that is accelerated by the softness of Zaytoven's piano riffs on the beat. The song is 21's most comprehensive take on street life, due to his ability to help visualize the maturation of a kid growing up in that environment. He touches on drug abuse to cope with frequent loss, the way drugs are pumped into black neighborhoods, and constant dealings with dishonest police. Part of the hook goes: "Another nigga made the news, it ain't nothin' new / He done dropped outta school, it ain't nothin' new / He done got his first tool, it ain't nothin' new / Mama on that dog food, it ain't nothin' new." The story's heartbreak is given away in its title; the occurrence of kids joining gangs to supplement family security, picking up guns, and doing drugs before their brains are fully developed is so routine that it feels expected and you grow desensitized.
Brighter showings of 21's ability are on Issa, too. The charisma that he often displays in interviews and that made Savage Mode a hit is amplified here. On "Bank Account," which has already proven to be a fan favorite due to its catchy hook, he raps, "Draco make you do the chickenhead like Chingy." "Big Business" holds some of the album's most comedic bars, such as when he makes fun of someone's baby mother for sleeping on an air mattress. In that song he also whips out never-before-heard flow patterns. At the end of that song's first verse, he raps to match the beat's bouncy breakdown: "You niggas got me fucked up, you got me twisted / I pull it out the boxers and then she lick it / I'm smoking on some moonrock, this shit is sticky / That Golden State troopers, I'm finna hit it." The triumphant and soulful Metro Boomin-produced "Thug Life" shows his ability to switch between multiple flows within verses. That aforementioned yelp that he regularly used pre-Savage Mode is also briefly resurrected on the album's hookless closer "7 Min Freestyle."
21's maturation in sound is most obviously displayed in curveball potential single, "FaceTime." Here, he full-heartedly expresses his willingness to give his love and time to someone who is ready to do the same while on a drunk FaceTime call. Lyrical content aside, his ability to execute a sure-fire R&B tune over a DJ Mustard beat that could have easily gone to Rihanna is particularly impressive. He offers a similar performance on "Special," in which he's enjoying a loving relationship that fame can neither enhance and diminish.
These types of expressions make 21 Savage's performance on Issa Album exciting because they show his potential for growth as an artist. Through interviews like The Breakfast Club or the talk with DJ Vlad that birthed the online "Issa" craze, it was clear that the Atlanta star had a lot to give, but it wasn't until his latest body of work that he proved that through his music. There is an emotional fullness on Issa that is missing on Savage Mode. That project's tilt might have been circumstantial. During the same talk about karma, Charlamagne Tha God asked 21 Savage if he believed that karma had caught up with him due to his actions in the street. Citing his rap career, he answered: "I feel like I done escaped it."
When Savage Mode was released, 21 had little fame to speak of, had a persona closer to the dark energy he exuded in song, and had not experienced the lifestyle change that the project's success would afford him. It's unlikely that his karmic escape was felt while recording it. A year into reaping those benefits, here he's still sharing the pain he carries. But it's the joy and love (both lyrical and sonic) he shares that make Issa Album encouraging—it shows 21 being able to step into a new chapter of life that isn't accompanied by death and darkness but by new experiences and easier living.
Lawrence Burney is a staff writer at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.