Photography by Ben Grieme
The Doraville Municipal Court House is a sleepy three-judge hall in northeast Atlanta plopped on a green hill around the corner from a Waffle House. On a bright early October afternoon, a door marked PROBATION OFFICER swings open, and 21 Savage comes stomping out.
In his hand is a manila folder full of court documents. From his stony facial expression, it’s hard to tell if the news is good or bad. As he rounds the hallway corner, an older police officer pulls him aside for a quick, quiet, stern-but-loving coach-talk. “Don’t fuck this up, OK? You get in trouble, you can call me.” Savage locks eye contact, nods plainly, says nothing. They shake hands.
Trailing behind is Meezy, Savage’s co-manager, a big happy bearded man. Just a minute ago, Meezy was in the hallway having an animated phone conversation about tour dates — “I said New Mexico! New!” Now he’s hustling to get Savage into their rental white Dodge Charger and the hell away from court.
In the car, Savage lights a Newport, the first of many, and lightly fumes. “Wish I could have paid another fine rather than do this shit.” He shuffles through the papers; a few months back he was caught driving without a license for a third time, according to Meezy. “They gave me 10 days of community service-type shit," Savage says. "I gotta wash the police cars and cut the grass.” He reconsiders his situation. “As long I ain’t get no fuckin’ jail time.” Here, Meezy chimes in: “I knew you wasn’t going to jail!" Savage, minutely, brightens up. “And this ain’t a felony probation. I can still carry a gun.”
With both front seats reclined to nearly 180 degrees, and me squeezed knees-up in the back, we head toward Savage’s apartment. He’s antsy to change out of his court shirt, a crisp button-down with just a touch of accoutrement — off-white pinstripes and navy button-accents. (Meezy: “That nigga dressed like he about to do the salsa.”) But first, we stop by Meezy’s house in a suburban subdivision. There, we watch Meezy’s adorable toddler gamely attempt to skateboard, and meet Meezy’s girlfriend.
“You know you famous now, right?” she asks Savage through the passenger side window, as he thumbs his phone. “My homegirl wants to FaceTime you ‘cause she don’t believe you out here.”
Catching her words from the driveway, where he’s helping his kid get back on the board, Meezy yells, “Bro! That man just got out of court!”
Smiling, she shoots back, “He look OK to me!”
Meezy’s girlfriend waits impatiently for a few minutes — “Come on, you famous now, come on!” — for a tacit sign of approval. Then she goes ahead and FaceTimes. “Gigi! He right here!” As anticipated, Gigi can’t believe it: she’s stunned into silence. Neither Gigi nor Savage do much interacting; briefly, they look at each other, through the glass. “You ain’t gon’ say nothing?” Meezy’s girlfriend prods. Then she turns to me, still holding up the phone with Gigi’s blank expression. “They love him, bro! I’m serious!”
I’d landed in Atlanta the night before, just in time to catch the tail-end of the annual hip-hop festival A3C. Edgewood Avenue was buzzing with happy clumps of kids throwing impromptu alleyway dance parties and hanging out the windows of SUVs. In one parking lot, lit dramatically in the headlights of a Hyundai Elantra, two tall women in heels flawlessly executed a tricky piece of choreography.
The Edgewood kids had long hair, big hair, dyed hair. They had snug jeans, scraggly beards, septum piercings. They were buoyant, chipper, eager, hopeful. Their clothes were multicolored, shredded, and more than a little punk. Atlanta, these days, isn’t beholden to traditions; among these kids and in the music they’re playing, there’s a certain joy that breeds more viral hits, more oddball jams, more money.
21 Savage was supposed to perform at A3C. But just a few days earlier, his appearance was canceled. There was no explanation offered. Meezy would later attest that it was the Atlanta Police Department that interceded and declared Savage’s festival performance a public danger. (His mind wandering perhaps a touch too conspiratorially, Meezy suggested Homeland Security had a hand in it, too.) Looking at the A3C overflow, I could guess what role Savage would have played to these kids: the anti-hero.
The people pushing hip-hop into the realms of the playful and the abstract are Savage’s city-mates and friends: this fall, he goes on tour with experimentalist king Young Thug, and he’s collaborated with Lil Yachty, the fiercely happy-go-lucky Atlanta MC who has skipped his way into LeBron James beverage commercials. But while his peers dream of widening hip-hop’s scope, Savage cinches it tight. He raps nearly exclusively about guns, drugs, and loveless sex, and he is insular to the point of claustrophobia.
Metro Boomin, arguably hip-hop’s premier producer, has worked extensively with Savage. “Rap’s way too friendly,” Metro says. “That’s why I fuck with him — it’s not buddy-buddy, with five, six niggas on every song. It’s ‘Fuck that nigga.’ If you ever see 21 Savage do a song with a rapper, it’s because he got paid the way he wanted to get paid.”
Savage walks a proud, well-trod path, one that trails from NWA’s South Central to Lil Boosie’s Southside of Baton Rouge and many points between. By his own admission, there’s nothing particularly novel in his street talk. “It ain’t nothing new,” he told XXL in an early interview, “but we’re going to bring back some shit that’s needed.” It’s in his delivery — lean, tight, agnostically flat — that we feel his potency. “I smashed the stripper in the hotel with my chains on,” he huffs on the chorus of “No Advance.” He utters the line with a grim, slight singsong; in its weariness, it is intoxicating.
At times he goes to extremes that feel like self-aware gallows humor. At times he peppers in amusing little references to remind you that he does know the outside world exists. (“I sit back and read like Cat in the Hat/ 21 Savage, the cat with the MAC.”) But his dominant mode is steely-eyed focus. He’s a young man, just barely 24 years old, enjoying the first flushes of fame. And he sounds like a returning vet of war, bruised and beaten, quietly hellbent on telling you his tales.
The day after municipal court, I meet Savage at Patchwerk, where a batch of the studio’s famous chocolate chip cookies have just come out of a vintage Otis Spunkmeyer oven. Savage is in the booth, entombed in darkness. Between takes, he rattles the ice in his Community Coffee double cups. Amplified, it has a soothing white-noise feel, like some accidental ASMR. “I put your favorite rapper in a wheelchair,” he says, over and over. And then: “Niggas say they from the streets, but bitch I’m still there.”
Walking out of the vocal booth, he hops onto the table, gently sliding a Glock away to make room. Everyone else is getting high and eating cookies. He picks up the gun, cradles it in both hands, starts planting little kisses all over its barrel. “Love you, baby.”
The way Savage remembers it, he was 8 when he first saw a gun. A .38 revolver. His uncle Dae Dae showed it to him, told him what it was, taught him about its uses and its dangers. At that point, he’d been getting cap guns for his birthday for years, and had long since fallen in love with firearms. “Ran around the house shooting the hell out of my brothers,” he recalls happily. “Pow. Pow. Pow!”
Growing up, Savage bounced around a lot of “beat-up ass apartments” in Atlanta. With him were his four brothers, six sisters, his mother’s boyfriend, and his mom, Heather, who is of Dominica descent. Those days were rife with drama, Savage recalls, but there was a certain familial solidarity to rely on.
“My mama used to get in fights with niggas’ mamas,” he says. “Our whole family would be fighting they whole family.”
To illustrate, Savage tells me a story from when he was 12, about a mean neighborhood lady who accused him of spray-painting the words fuck you bitch on her car. But he was innocent. Alone at home, he called his mother at work.
“Next thing I know, my mama come through doing like a hundred in the parking lot,” he says. “She ran up on [the neighbor’s] ass. My mama small as hell, that lady was thick as a motherfucker — she goddamn chomped that lady ass. I done broke some scissors, turned it into a little knife, was standing out there like ‘Don’t you touch my mama!’ We always been tight, like, ride or die. Shit that’s all I have — my mama.”
Not long before, he’d brought a pistol to Stone Mountain Middle School, as protection from some bullies, and was swiftly ratted out: “I probably broke the record for the youngest nigga to bring a gun to that school.” The next year or so, he bounced between the Dekalb Regional Youth Development Center (known, and referred to on his song “No Heart,” as Panthersville) and alternative school. “And I was small as hell back then,” he recalls. “I was a little-ass boy. You would have thought I was 7 or 8, goddamn.” Savage’s birthname is Shayaa Joseph, but everyone that’s known him since he was a kid calls him Lil’ Man.
In youth detention facilities, Savage recalls, one common practice was to leave a candy bar on the new boy’s cot. It was a test: if you ate it, that meant you were soft. Savage’s response to spotting a Snickers on his bed sheets one afternoon? Wailing on the very next kid that came in the room. “I ain’t gon’ lie,” he says. “I popped off. The nigga beat the shit outta me.” But in his mind, he’d earned his respect.
“If you ever see 21 Savage do a song with a rapper, it’s because he got paid the way he wanted to get paid.” —Metro Boomin
After the gun situation (and another little incident where he was caught messing around with a girl on the schoolbus), he was expelled from all Dekalb County schools. So his mother moved him to Gwinnett County, on the north side. For one semester of 9th grade, things went well: he even joined the football team, where he played wide receiver and cornerback. But he never felt fully comfortable on the new side of town and after a while, he just stopped going to school. And almost immediately, he transitioned to street activities. “Next thing you know,” he says, “it was weed, weed, weed. Crack. And robberies.”
One afternoon in town I meet Savage’s old friend Chucky, who runs down the old protocol. The flatscreens they’d sell to the dope boys, the jewelry they’d take to Cash 4 Gold, the money they’d keep. They’d knock before busting down the door, making sure no one was home, but “sometimes we had to shoot our way out. Some people sleep hard.”
Savage himself is also game to explain the exact tenor of his criminal activities. “I done sold cocaine, sold crack cocaine. I never sold, like, a whole brick,” he says, meaning a kilogram of cocaine. “I done took bricks.” What he’s indicating, I think, is that he was not some drug kingpin from cinematic lore. His tastes in hustles were less grand, more catholic.
An Atlanta PD report from 2014 provides a look at those hustles. Savage was riding as a passenger in a ’98 Acura when it made an illegal turn across four lanes of traffic. In the ensuing stop, the arresting officers confiscated a mason jar containing 22.6 grams of marijuana, a Glock .40 and a Ruger .9mm (both loaded, both with a round in the chamber), a large unlabeled bottle containing 89 pills of the opioid hydrocodone, $1775 in cash, and a scale “recovered on the middle console in plain view.”
It was around this time that Savage got a tattoo right between his eyes. It’s a dagger, and an ode to his younger brother Quantivayus, who everyone called Tayman. The original inspiration was Tony Montana’s blade tattoo in Scarface. Savage and his brothers agreed to get the ink in the same place as Tony, between the thumb and the index finger. But Tayman jumped the gun, and went ahead and planted it right on his face, bold and bright. After Tayman was shot and killed, in a botched drug deal, Savage did the same. “He was a real wild nigga,” Savage recalls, fondly. “Little wild nigga. Hothead. Bat out of hell, bad as hell.”
There are other tattoos, other memorials: his mother’s name on his stomach, kiddie versions of the classic villains Freddy and Jason. On Savage’s chest, in a tattooed outlay of clouds, are the names Larry and Johnny — two of his best friends, both shot and killed — and Tamika, Larry’s mother, who was killed at the same time as her son.
Savage was in the car at the time of Johnny’s murder. It was Savage’s 21st birthday, and he himself was shot six times. He is cagey about recalling the incident, but later, when he’s out of earshot, one of his friends quickly shares with me the version of the story he’d always heard. That a deal turned into an attempted robbery. That there were two assailants. That Johnny got shot in the head. That Savage, wounded, tried to shoot back. That afterward he shut Johnny’s eyes, got out of the car, closed the door, lit a cigarette, and waited nearly 30 minutes for the ambulance to come.
Did you think you were gonna die? I ask Savage later.
“Yeah,” he says. “A whole lot of blood loss. A whole lot of blood loss. But I guess they say your adrenaline be rushing. So you don’t really feel it, when it’s going on.”
You ride a keypad-activated elevator to get to 21 Savage's condo now. He moved in six months ago, but it’s still spartan, barely furnished. There’s a silver bar table under a greenish, Ramada Inn-esque piece of prefab art; a couch; a flat screen. One corner of the living room is sprayed with empty boxes: Jordan, FedEx, Gucci.
In the bedroom there are black sheets, stacks of videogames and, leaning against the foot of the bed, a semi-automatic rifle. On the kitchen counter is a little pouch of weed snacks reading Kap’n Kronik’s Kronik Berries. For its cover, some anonymous talent of an artist has turned the venerable Cap’n Crunch into a crazed red-eyed stoner.
Savage lets a friend into the apartment, a thirtysomething man in sweatpants. A bill counter is set up in the kitchen and whirred on.
We make small talk. Savage says he’s looking to get a place with a second bedroom so that when his kids stay over they don’t have to sleep in his bed. He wants “bunk beds and shit, a decorated room.” Savage has a daughter, who is 1, and two boys, aged 3 and 2.
What’re they like?
“They really all, like, mean — not mean but they just not friendly. My youngest is my little boy though. That little nigga funny. He always goddamn smiling.”
We move to Savage’s avoidance of planes. Some observers have speculated that this may be a side effect of a young life of crime — that it stems from a desire to avoid showing ID at the airport, and summarily being served with warrants.
I ask him about the planes. And he says, simply enough: “I’m scared to fly.”
“Yeah. And getting hijacked.”
But you have flown?
How’d you cope?
“Chewed gum and, goddamn, Xans.”
Finally, the counting’s done, and the machine whirrs shut. One share of the money is rubber-banded into neat piles and tucked in a small black plastic trash bag. Another share is thrown in a hard, Lids-branded fitted-cap case.
I start to ask if this is rap money or …
Savage looks and, with a tiny smirk, cuts me off. “Rap money.”
“I wasn’t rapping cause I was like, ‘Damn, I can get rich and famous.’ I was gonna get rich regardless. I was rapping ‘cause there wasn’t shit else to do.”
The changes that have taken place in Savage’s life in just the last two years have been blunt and, frankly, amazing. It was after the shooting that Savage started spending more time in recording studios. “I wasn’t like, ‘I got shot, I’m finna be a rapper,’” Savage says. “Shit. I just started taking my goddamn dope money and spending it on studio time.”
Which is funny, because none of this was part of the plan. “I liked how the studio looked. The vibes. The cookies and shit,” Savage recalls, of his early days messing with music. “But I wasn’t rapping cause I was like, ‘Damn, I can get rich and famous.’ I was gonna get rich regardless. I was rapping ‘cause there wasn’t shit else to do.”
Metro Boomin met Savage before he had actually released any music, even before the dagger tat. They had mutual friends, would run into each other in studios. One day Savage took him aside, told him he was kind of, you know, starting to rap. “It’s crazy, people try that with me every day,” Metro tells me, amused. “But — I can’t even tell you all the way what it was — sometimes something just tells you to do shit.” Intrigued, Metro sent beats.
What came back was “Drip,” a prototypical early, forceful Savage track (“I never seen a ass so fat/ She wanna a young nigga sellin’ crack”). It would appear on his first proper release, The Slaughter Tape. Two similarly hard-nosed releases followed, both via his Slaughter Gang imprint. Then in July of this year came Savage Mode. Fully produced by Metro, it’s far and away Savage’s best work.
Running a compact 32 minutes, it’s a surprisingly pretty piece of music. Everything, including the actual tempo, is tempered, understated, resolute. Throughout, Savage is often nearly whispering. It’s a prickly, peculiar, low-register snarl; in its restraint, it comes off all the more menacing. Dropped in lockstep with Metro’s hushed productions, the music at times nearly goes ambient. It’s gully, gnarly shit-talking street-rap for your early morning meditation.
“I like to do a lot of post-production, a lot of crazy shit,” Metro says, of his usual practices. “But [Savage] just wanted those motherfuckers clean. The simple, moody, dark beats — that created the proper bed. His voice just different.”
What happens next? Savage has tracks locked with the ubiquitous Atlanta producer Southside, which may become its own proper EP. He’s banked upcoming features for Fetty Wap and Jeremih. He’s worked with both Meek Mill and Drake, and the sworn enemies seem locked in a little battle for his affection. The former took him dirt-bike joyriding; the latter sent him birthday wishes via Instagram (“Happy G Day to a young October king with all the juice right now") then gifted him a drop-top Ferrari. And he’s got 20 or 30 more tracks recorded with Metro, which may or may not be released, and may or may not be called Savage Mode 2.
As for a contract — Savage has repeatedly boasted about avoiding deals and advances. Now, though, he’s considering linking Slaughter Gang to a label via a distribution deal. The aim is to avoid what he dismissively refers to as the “chitlin circuit”: the club appearances and state college homecoming weekends where so many regional rap acts make their living. “I can go in the building, shake white people’s hands,” he says, “and get ‘em to give me millions of dollars.”
For now he’s in a middle zone, unsigned but working with the best. One night in the studio, I catch a conversation between him and the fantastical, fun-loving Lil Uzi Vert. They’re comparing notes about influences. Uzi ticks off Wiz Khalifa and Drake and other stuff Savage didn’t really grow up on.
“Yeah, you were listening to the weird shit,” Savage said, trying to recall another act that Uzi had mentioned to him once. “Maril… Maril...”
“Marilyn Manson!” Uzi offered, giddily.
Rappers like Uzi, Yachty, and Thug represent a certain progressive vanguard. But they’re also commercially dominant. And that means aspirational “weirdness” has become more and more the status quo. It wasn’t necessarily his intention, but Savage has appeared as a corrective to all that. His street talk is unvarnished, almost brutally so. And his message is simple: Atlanta is still a city of bullets and drugs.
Savage spends a lot of time in a neighborhood on the westside of Atlanta. That’s where his pals are. It’s officially known as the 9th Ward, but mostly everyone calls it the 9. A short drive from Savage’s sterile downtown high-rise, it’s a whole different part of the city.
Inside a battered one-bedroom apartment, the hub of activity is the kitchen. Seating is minimal: there’s an office chair and a wayward dresser. Here and there, the apartment’s thin drywall is punctured with jagged holes. One window is covered in a makeshift curtain in the form of a towel advertising Pixar’s Cars. From a back door, men and women — slightly bedraggled, in their forties and fifties — politely knock and come in and out.
Spilling in and out, Savage and a big crew of his friends joyously shoot the shit. They wear skinny jeans hanging off the ass; they hold iPhones in one hand, flip phones in the other. They toss off hilarious conversation spurs.
How would you convince a woman that the GoPro in your bedroom wasn’t there for a sex tape?
“Oh nah! I’m just into extreme sports!”
Would a hog be able to eat a human body?
“Nigga, a hog?! These bitches eat elephants! Yo ass would be ate up in 30 minutes!”
Fearing the onset of a flu, Savage says to no one in particular, “I drink so much syrup, I don’t know how I be getting a cold.”
In the back is No Plug, an animated, skinny young man playing Madden. Locally, he’s something of a notorious figure: after the death of the beloved rapper Bankroll Fresh during a shootout outside of an Atlanta studio earlier this year, No Plug came forward, took responsibility, and declared self-defense. (Savage had no involvement or knowledge with the incident). According to No Plug’s own account, he was never charged with a crime. According to the Atlanta DA, the case is still under investigation.
At one point Savage hops on another controller, gets trounced by No Plug, and cuts off the machine in a classic bit of good-natured video-game rage. “This No Plug,” he tells me. “Make sure you throw him in the article. Real nigga.”
We move to another bustling house on the eastside of the city, a suburban-style ranch home with a large front lawn. It’s quiet in here, casual, mundane. People are dozing in and out. It reminds me of a line of dialogue from FX’s Atlanta, in which Migos’s Quavo offers a little-expressed sentiment: “Trappin’s boring as shit.” Stephen Glover, the writer of the episode, would later tell me over email, “It’s romanticized a lot, but trapping is mostly being home all day.”
And then: some action. Two women appear in the door, each toting overflowing laundry bags of pilfered goods from the mall: sweatpants, track jackets, hoodies, various high-end scents. The house comes alive, the crowd joyously rooting through the goods for anything they may want to second-hand purchase from these elite shoplifters. Meezy attempts to help one customer pop off a sensor: “I wanna see if I still got the juice.” Chucky, gazing longingly at a bottle of Versace perfume, is amazed: “There’s nothing these folks can’t get!”
Savage has disappeared into the back, and the sun has long since gone down. I call a car, and Meezy helpfully comes with me. He wants to make sure no one hanging out front gets their wires crossed when they see an unfamiliar vehicle pulling up in the dark.
“If a car’s rolling slowly down the street, that’s the Uber,” he tells a young lanky man in a novelty beer T-shirt.
The guy smiles big and decides to fuck with us, miming the firing of a weapon. “If a car rolling slowly down the street, I’m going rat-a-tat-tat!”
The grist for Savage’s music is the real life of the real people of the 9th Ward of Atlanta. His recorded version of that life is dark and dire and soundtracked, exhaustively, by the sounds of gunshots. There is a lightness in his craft, in his negative space; there is humor in the bizarre and fascinating way he tempers his talk and sketches out his extremes. But, explicitly, there is no space for the real-life eccentricities of his city. Like the one random kid hanging out in the 9 in a Hey Arnold! backpack. Or the house-call barber that showed up to the trap house in slacks and a headlamp. Or the truly not-bad Trump impersonation that Savage, briefly, trotted out while we drove around aimlessly.
And there isn’t space for the triumphalism that street rap has traditionally embraced — the classic tale of a plucky young man, weighed down by unimaginable burdens, coming out on top. Because Savage’s vision of life in Atlanta is not that of a grand triumph over impossible odds. His vision is that of a slow, aching tragedy.
One late afternoon, Savage pulls up in the white Charger in front of a serene suburban spot fronted by a well-tended pocket of cacti. Without a word, he disappears into the house. Meezy lets me know: it’s the home of his Ifa chief.
Atlanta’s a visibly Christian place. Over just a few days, I see cab drivers with Bibles propped on their front seat dividers, a blazing neon “Jesus Saves” sign, and one billboard advertising auditions for “models and actors for Christ.” But Savage is a lifelong practitioner of Ifa, a West African religion in the Yoruba tradition known for elekes, the colorful beads worn by its practitioners to connect with deities known as Orishas. “I’m African-American,” he’ll say later. “I’d rather follow an African religion. That’s my heritage.” His mother practices Ifa; mostly everyone he grew up with does, too.
Explaining the process, he says, “You pray, ask questions, ask for guidance, pay respect to ancestors.” And you confess your wrongdoings. “It’s all about making sure you pay for your sins — everybody gon’ make mistakes, commit sins. You just gotta make it right.”
The Ifa beads are “protection,” he explains. “[They] protect me from negativity, harm, anything that’s gonna disrupt anything that I got going on.” He doesn’t wear them too often, though, because “if they know what you doing to protect yourself, people can pray against it.” He has regular readings with his chief. “I try to do it as often as I can,” he says. “It play a role in my success.”
After a half hour or so, Savage comes bounding out of the chief’s home and back into the rental car. He fills us in. “That nigga said I ain’t gotta worry about no police,” he announces. “No police gon’ fuck with me!” He sounds, for a moment at least, at peace.