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21 Savage drops first solo album in over 5 years

ANDREW LIMBONG, HOST:

Last thing for today - the rapper 21 Savage just dropped his latest album on Friday.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALL OF ME")

21 SAVAGE: (Rapping) I stand on business, dot my I's and cross my T's. All I got is these little pictures when I think about all the G's. Memories in my head, the devil talking to me.

LIMBONG: It's his first solo album in more than five years, and it's called "American Dream," which is maybe a comment on his recent immigration battles. Here to talk about the album is Rodney Carmichael. He writes about hip-hop for NPR Music and is co-host of the Louder Than A Riot podcast. He joins us from Atlanta. Hey, Rodney. What's up?

RODNEY CARMICHAEL, BYLINE: Hey, what's going on, Andrew?

LIMBONG: All right. So this is his first solo album in more than five years. Why is this such a big deal?

CARMICHAEL: Well, mostly because 21 has really been fighting for his life. I mean, for the last five years, he's been mired in a legal battle that really made this chart-topping rapper the face of an overlooked but criminalized class of people in America, and that's Black undocumented immigrants. A week before he was due to perform at the Grammys for the first time in 2019, he got arrested by ICE agents. And to the surprise of nearly every hip-hop fan in existence, the rapper, who had been repping East Atlanta as his home, was actually born in London, and he'd come to America with his mom as a child and had been living here on really an expired visa for years.

LIMBONG: And there were, like, no hints of that in his music - right? - up until now?

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, not at all. I mean, this is an artist whose discography is really filled with death ballads and survivor's guilt, all really a consequence of the violence that has defined his upbringing in east Atlanta. And the closest nod to his immigrant origins really came when he empathized with people, quote-unquote, "stuck at the border" on a song called "A Lot."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A LOT")

21 SAVAGE: (Rapping) Went through some things, but I couldn't imagine my kids stuck at the border. Flint still need water, n****s was innocent, couldn't get lawyers.

CARMICHAEL: And many fans now consider that song and what he said on that song to be the trigger that set his targeting by ICE agents in motion.

LIMBONG: And I should say "A Lot" was huge, right? I mean, I remember when it came out, it was just like everywhere.

CARMICHAEL: Chart topping.

LIMBONG: Yeah.

CARMICHAEL: Grammy success, everything.

LIMBONG: Yeah. So in the intro, you know, I was - I almost introduced him as an Atlanta rapper, right? But then considering all these immigration issues, I was like, I don't know. And then I was thinking about the music video to the single "Redrum," and it's very much a tribute to England. I mean, here's how the video starts.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC VIDEO, "REDRUM")

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Aye, I swear, when done you think of England, you done think big yards, men in big hats, posh touch, drinking tea in Buckingham Palace, big band and black cabs, them telephone boxes...

LIMBONG: So how should we think about his sense of place?

CARMICHAEL: Well, this dude is very much in Atlanta rapper. I mean, let's set the record straight. He came of age here. He survived the poverty that informed so much of his experience and his music. And in this video, he's in Brixton, where his family in London lives. And he's really showing us that there's an equally disparate reality in the U.K. that he and his mom escaped for what they thought would be a better life here. I mean, just like in a lot of ways trap music kind of peels back the layers on the Black American experience and particularly the Atlanta experience, he's showing that the same thing exists on the other side of the water.

LIMBONG: All right. So let's bring it back to "American Dream." Is there another song here that you really like?

CARMICHAEL: Yeah, I think "Letter To My Brudda."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LETTER TO MY BRUDDA")

21 SAVAGE: (Rapping) I feel your pain, my brother. I know you from the struggle. I know how hard you hustle just to take care of your mother.

CARMICHAEL: In his recent Rolling Stone cover story, he calls most of his music fictional, but there's a whole lot of truth in this song. I mean, he speaks on some real-life situations that really sound a lot like the ongoing RICO trial that his friend and collaborator Young Thug is going through. He talks about artist lyrics being used to prosecute him in criminal cases. And he mourns a lot of the friends and family that he's lost along the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LETTER TO MY BRUDDA")

21 SAVAGE: (Rapping) Father God, forgive me for my sins. Take the mask off of my enemies that's out here acting like my friends. Did some s*** I'm praying I never got to do again. I put blood, sweat and tears inside this win.

LIMBONG: You know, at the end of the album, that - he goes on this whole thing about telling teens really - right? - he goes, like, stay in school, keep your friends close to you, you know, think about your mom. She loves you, da-da-da (ph). What does this album tell us about where 21 Savage is right now as a rapper?

CARMICHAEL: Yeah. It's interesting. I think that in a lot of ways, you know, even though a lot of his music is really dark, and a lot of his past is really dark, so there's congruency there. He's come to a place in his life where that's not the reality that he's trying to live now or that he actually lives now. And he wants people to see it as a form of entertainment.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DARK DAYS")

21 SAVAGE: (Rapping) You probably got your momma scared, don't want to watch the news. Ready to risk y'all life and freedom for a pair of shoes. Yeah. You say you love your switch, but they don't love you back. You can hug that block all night, it ain't going to hug you back. Some of your friends got reincarnated and come back as rats. And at their candlelight, they ain't going to give your momma jack.

CARMICHAEL: This album, I think, is really showing fans and foes alike that the narrative he's presented his whole career, it's really one that he's still standing on, you know. And in some ways, it's really a victory of sorts, even if the picture that it paints is one that ultimately shows how unattainable the American dream is for certain race and class of people.

LIMBONG: That's NPR's Rodney Carmichael, co-host of the podcast Louder Than A Riot. Thanks, Rodney.

CARMICHAEL: Thanks, Andrew. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Rodney Carmichael
Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.