21 Savage doesn’t talk much. Maybe the “Death Before Dishonor” tattoo lining the top of his forehead, above another tattoo of a dagger between his eyes, says enough. We’ve met up on Boulevard in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood of Atlanta, ands he sips from doubled styrofoam cups sagging his Nudie Jeans as we head toward a location no one will name. “I ain’t gonna be riding around like no hoe,” he says, reclining in the driver’s seat.
The young street rapper has long looked the part, and lived it. Born Shayaa Joseph, he was expelled from all DeKalb County schools for getting caught with a gun in the 7th grade. Since then, 21 says, he’s been busy with “wild shit, robbing.” In 2013, he was shot six times, and his best friend was killed. “Shit got ugly,” he explains, about as far as he’ll elaborate on the situation. But the low point led him to rapping, crafting dark trap anthems like “Picky,” the DJ Plugg-produced single that soon became a niche classic among Atlanta locals for its shaky, intoxicating energy.
It's grim stuff, but has also caught the attention of the ever-churning Atlanta rap scene mainly due to 21's unflinching transparency about his morals—right or wrong. I’m a real street nigga/I’ll be damned if I pay you for a feature, he says on “Out The Bowl,” a deep cut from his flagship project The Slaughter Tape. He says he doesn’t participate in Atlanta’s industry economy of cosigns, paid features, and diplomatic alliances between rappers, but Key!, the Atlanta underground mainstay who's had a hand in ground-level movements like Two-9, Awful Records, and OGG, took a liking to 21 and offered career advice and fruitful connections with a bevy of hot local producers. “The producers show more love to underground niggas than the big artists. Niggas like Metro, Sonny, Zaytoven, TM. They wanna see you win,” explains 21. “Artists feel threatened. ‘Cause a lot of these niggas be flexing, so they be like ‘Damn, this a nigga whose story seems real, or he ain’t lying. So I can’t fuck with that nigga.’ There just be a lot of bitchassness going on.”
With a platform of producers supporting him, 21 released his first sprawling, street epic, The Slaughter Tape, this past May. Songs like “Gang,” “Pimp,” and “Million Dollar Lick” established his footing, and made his rasp one of the city’s meanest street voices. “21 Savage is important because he’s one of the last real street niggas left making music,” stresses Metro Boomin. His music leans heavily on robbing and killing, pulling inspiration from lived-in hardships: Auntie hit the dope say it make her fucking jaw lock/Stray bullets hitting kids while they playing hopscotch, he raps on “Skirt Skirt.” Gucci Mane's influence is clear as ever, with a fresh menace that feels just an inch removed from the life it documents.
“I respect motherfucking character. Actions. Backgrounds.”—21 Savage
We pull up to a parking lot in an apartment complex. Every time the police circle the block, someone notifies the crew by saying “12.” Within minutes, prescription opiates are changing hands. Residents are shooting dice, but 21 hangs back. “I don’t shoot craps, I shoot Cee-lo,” says 21, preferring bigger stakes. “We living in the days when money is respect,” he tells me. “As long as you got money, niggas gon’ respect you. It don’t even matter what you do, what you ‘bout, how you carry yourself. If you got a lot of money, niggas gon’ respect you and you gon’ be able to do whatever you want to do.”
But what does 21 respect? “I respect motherfucking character. Actions. Backgrounds. What type of nigga you is. If you on some ‘I ain’t no gangsta, I’m just a cool ass nigga,’ I respect you. Versus you ain’t no gangsta and you act like you is, to try to get cool with me. Niggas be thinking, ‘Oh I gotta act like I’m a killer when I’m around him.’ Like hell nah, cause you acting. I respect real shit. That shit get on my nerves, especially when they be doing it to impress me. Don’t do that. Cause I got niggas dead ‘bout that. So that’s like you disrespecting them. Cause you acting like you one of us, and I got niggas that died for this shit.”
21 released Free Guwop, a tribute EP to Gucci Mane, in July. He has a collaborative EP with Metro Boomin in the works, called SavageBoomin, and another tape, Slaughter King, dropping after. What's keeping the rapper who professed to having one foot in and one foot out focused? “I got two kids,” he says, as he drives to Decatur to Van Morrison's “Brown-Eyed Girl” humming from the classic rock station on his radio. “I ain’t tryna die. Or get locked up. Had to change up the way I move. Rapping just gave me something to do versus the streets. I got a crew. I got a lot of real niggas around me that deserve everything that I deserve. Rapping is one of the tools we can use to make sure all our folks straight.” Some of his crew, the Slaughter Gang, also have the number “21” inked somewhere on their bodies. It refers to their block back home. “I just want us to win,” he says. “Niggas ain’t did nothing but lose they whole life.”