21 Savage is one of the best rappers alive. This isn’t hyperbole: Savage won Complex’s rap MVP award for 2022 because of his consistent output, improvement, and evolution of his cadence and wordplay with every verse. From delivering a flurry of impressive features to holding his own with one of the biggest artists on the planet for an entire album, 21 Savage has solidified his place as a rap heavyweight, but he’s not in it for the recognition.
“I just feel like a lot of people lose their spot trying to take somebody else’s,” Savage tells Complex over the phone. “I’d rather just keep [trying to outdo myself] over and over.”
21’s MVP year kicked off with a prolific run of collaborations, and each held their own standout verses. When working with fellow Atlanta rapper JID and Baby Tate on “Surround Sound,” Savage was able to morph his defining sinister bars around a soulful Aretha Franklin sample, whereas on Gunna’s “Thought I Was Playing,” he found new and creative ways to deliver his vicious lines, like “Say they twins, throw they bodies in the same river.”
21’s year was then further solidified by the work he did with Drake. The two have a special chemistry, first exposed on “Sneakin’,” which hit a new level on the Certified Lover Boy cut, “Knife Talk,” and became undeniable on Honestly, Nevermind’s “Jimmy Cooks,” our song of the year. With the duo linking up for an entire album, Her Loss was guaranteed to be a moment. 21 was able to hold his own and the collaboration helped get him “hotter” while introducing him to a much larger audience. Her Loss is what ultimately set Savage apart from the rest of his peers this year. The surprise album dominated hip-hop discussion after it dropped and showcased how 21’s rapping has reached new heights.
“I ain’t heard a project like this in a long time, honestly, probably since My Turn,” he says, reflecting on the album. “This is like a real album you can ride to from top to bottom, that’s what I was thinking in the club. I just remember feeling proud of him because he put it together the right way, from the tracklist and everything.”
This was a big year for the 30-year-old rapper, and with a new album coming “very, very soon,” he’s poised to elevate even further in the coming months. Below is our conversation with 21 Savage about being named the Best Rapper Alive, the current state of Atlanta rap, what fans can expect from him in 2023, and more.
Congratulations on being named Complex’s Best Rapper Alive! How does it feel to be revered in that way?
It feels like an overstatement, honestly. But I’m thankful that y’all feel that way.
You’ve said in the past that you aren’t focused on being the “greatest rapper,” but instead “the greatest you.” Can you explain why and what that means to you?
I just feel like a lot of people lose their spot trying to take somebody else’s. I’d rather just keep [trying to outdo myself] over and over.
How did you approach rap differently this year compared to years past? You had a serious run of unique guest features. Was that by design?
[The features] just happened, honestly. I don’t ever be having a “let me do this,” type of mindset with features. They just be happening. People just be calling me, and I just be rapping.
Has that been recurring in your career, things just falling into place?
Yeah, everything just be happening naturally. I don’t know what it is or why, but it always just falls into place.
Being named the best rapper breathing right now puts you on a shortlist of other legendary names. Who’s your personal greatest rapper of all time, outside of yourself?
Jay-Z, just because of the longevity of his career and all the different versions of him that we got. His music evolves with him. Everything he did, I want to do it the way that he did it. He did it the right way. He ain’t never stop growing, and you can really hear his growth in his music. You can hear it from when he was 26, 27, to 40-something years old. And people still want to listen to it. I don’t think that happens often.
Who do you see as your immediate peers or competition? How do you think you stack up next to the other major artists?
Probably like Lil Baby, [Young Thug] (free Thug), Travis [Scott], [Lil] Durk, [Young] Nudy. Those are who I’d say are my peers.
Would you consider other artists that you work with heavily like J. Cole and Drake your peers as well?
Man, hell nah [Laughs.]. There’s just a difference, bro. That’s, like, years of work and a fanbase that is going to be there until they die, that’s different. I feel like I’m working to be on that level that they’re on, but I don’t feel like it’s the same. I feel I could do something corny, and I would lose a lot of what I got. That wouldn’t happen with them. Drake could do whatever, Cole could do whatever, and their shit not going anywhere. I’m working toward that level for sure, but I don’t I’m there yet. I’m not saying I’m light-years behind. They’re more solidified, and I’m still building on what I got. But I could be wrong… It’s all about how the fans look at it.
Speaking of Drake, Her Loss made a lot of noise. How long did the album take to come together, and whose idea was it at first to put it together?
It took a few months to make, but that was only because of schedules and shit. It wasn’t really because we couldn’t create the music, we were both just doing other shit inbetween it so we were just getting in the studio when we could. I know for sure I was already thinking about it, and so was he because of what was going on at the time. Both the songs that we dropped before [“Knife Talk” and “Jimmy Cooks”] were big songs and they connected with the culture. But he texted me.
I was already thinking about it, but I didn’t want to look like a thirsty ass young rapper who was like “Drake, let’s do a mixtape!” because I know how I would look at it. I didn’t want to overstep what we had going on, because we talk on the regular. I didn’t want him to think there was a motive behind how I fuck with him, so I just played my role and let him know that I fuck with him period. He’s got a good heart, so we already be talking about regular shit, and then he was like, “Let’s just do a tape,” and we started sending each other shit.
“That’s why I get the blessings I get, because I move in a genuine way.”
It makes sense that you didn’t want it to seem like you’re only friends with him so that you could work together.
Yeah, because I think that’s how a lot of people be. But I don’t really care about the shit that a typical rapper cares about. I think that’s why I have so much success because I don’t chase shit. Everything that I do is genuine, I’m not fucking with somebody just to use them, and people can see when you’re that type of rapper. That’s why I get the blessings I get, because I just move in a genuine way.
What was your approach to working with one of the biggest artists in the world [Drake] and how did you avoid being overshadowed?
I just approached it regular. I like to make shit that I like. I don’t think too hard when I’m making music, it just comes naturally. I just make shit that I think is good, and I think I got a good ear and know when something sounds good. There were verses that I changed parts of, but I just made some shit that sounds good.
The collab felt mutually beneficial. What did you get out of it and what did Drake get out of it?
I can’t really say what Drake got, because Drake is Drake. It’s hard to say, I feel like I gained new fans from it. I think it put me on a broader scale. It leveled me up for sure, it made me hotter for sure. But I also think that comes from me not having any music out. It’s just been straight features for two years before that shit happened. I think [my fans] wanted me to drop, so whatever I dropped was going to do that. People were ready to hear me rap, so I think that’s what I got from it too, it fed my fans.
With him, I think it was more so like, he dropped a dance album and everybody didn’t react to it the right way. They were questioning it, so I think what he gained from [Her Loss] was like, “Stop playing, like I don’t do this shit.” It was more of a rich flex for him. Like, “I’m still that nigga.”
What’s your favorite memory from the making of the album? Drake told this story about how, at a party before the project dropped, you both made eye contact from across the club while you were playing it, and that’s when he knew you guys did something special. Do you remember that moment?
That was probably my favorite memory, too. With my music, I don’t listen to it. I record it, and if I like it, I know it’s going on the album, but I don’t overly drive around to my music because I will stop liking it. I learned from the past when I was younger, I’d make some hard shit, like “Bank Account.” I rode around to “Bank Account” for two weeks straight and I stopped liking the song. So when Issa Album came out, I didn’t think “Bank Account” was going to do shit because I stopped liking it. So now I don’t overly listen to my shit before it comes out, I’ll just listen to R&B all day.
“People were ready to hear me rap, so I think that’s what I got from [Her Loss] too, it fed my fans.”
With Her Loss, I would just do my verses, send them to Drake, and then I wouldn’t listen to them again. He would send it back with his verses, I’d listen to it once, and then never listen to it again. So when we were in the club, that was my first time hearing it cohesively as a project. Hearing it all the way through in the club, I was just like, “Damn, this shit hard as fuck.” I ain’t heard a project like this in a long time, honestly, probably since My Turn. This is like a real album you can ride to from top to bottom, that’s what I was thinking in the club. I just remember feeling proud of him because he put it together the right way, from the tracklist and everything. [Lil] Yachty too, because Yachty helped a lot.
Who’s idea was it for you to have the timestamp song on the album instead of Drake?
It was my manager [Meezy’s] idea. At first, the song was going to be called “Chasing M’s” because that’s the last bar on the song. I think we were on the jet going to meet Drake in Miami for his birthday, and I sent it to Meezy the week prior just for him to listen to it and get his opinion. I felt like it was hard, but I be wanting to make sure sometimes with songs out of my norm. He listened to it, and he’s a big Drake fan anyway, so while we were on the jet he said, “Bro, you need to name the song ‘3AM on Glenwood,’” and I asked why. He said, “Drake always does these timestamp songs, and that shit would shock people to hear it and it’s you because they’re automatically going to think it’s him.” So I texted Drake, and he said that’s hard, and that’s how that happened.
What is something that might surprise people about Drake’s process in the studio?
He records like how I record. He don’t like a lot of people in the studio. I hate that shit. I don’t want there to be anybody but me and the engineer, and Jen, my A&R. I don’t even like recording in front of producers, but I will with certain ones, like Metro [Boomin] obviously, people who I’m comfortable with. But I don’t like recording in front of people. I will make the engineers put on headphones, because if I’m recording out loud and there’s 20 people in the studio and everybody ain’t bopping their heads like this is the hardest shit they’ve ever heard in their life, it’s going to throw me off. He records like that too. I’ll go to another room to record while we were working. I’ll come in there, crack jokes, then go into the next room and we do our thing.
The album was received really well, but it did get some pushback due to some of Drake’s bars about Megan Thee Stallion. What were your thoughts on the backlash those lines got?
I don’t feel like that was his intention [to diss Megan]. Remember when I said I was telling him to not hold back, people tried to twist that to make it seem like I was talking about that situation. That bar was more of, like, a joke bar than him trying to say something about her. But I don’t really like speaking on people’s situations because life be real.
“I always put a lot of effort into my albums… Not no microwave shit.”
What’s next for you in terms of solo work this year? Are you and Metro cooking up a Savage Mode 3 for 2023?
Hell nah, it’s too early for [Savage Mode 3]. I’m going to drop very, very soon though. I think it’s going to impact. I always put a lot of effort into my albums, so you can expect the best of the best. Not no microwave shit. It’s going to be a solid, good ass album. We’re very close.
At this point in its completion, how does it stack up to past albums like Issa Album and I Am > I Was?
I don’t really compare albums because it’s not like food. It’s going to be a great album like how I thought those were great albums. Especially I Am > I Was, I feel like that’s my best solo album so far.
Atlanta is still on top of the rap game, but there have been challenges for the city, too, from the YSL case to the passing of beloved artists. What are your thoughts on the state of Atlanta rap right now, and where is it headed in 2023?
You can feel a lot of energy missing from Atlanta right now. Atlanta just ain’t the same, honestly. That shit be really driving me crazy. I feel like we took a lot of big ass losses last year. I don’t feel like we’ll ever recover from that shit, if I’m being honest. Especially with Takeoff. I feel like we’re just in a dark place right now in Atlanta, as far as our energy. Going outside ain’t the same, clubs ain’t the same, you just feel it.
What will it take to restore the feeling in Atlanta?
I feel like certain people, when you lose them or they’re not physically able to be present, certain people just aren’t replaceable. There’s nothing you can do to fill that void. I really don’t think there’s nothing we can do for real, but hold on to what we have left and cherish what we have left.
“I just want to drop a good ass album that everybody loves so it helps solidify me. I want that level-up album.”
Your pinned tweet says “It feels like everything in my life is falling in place the right way.” What has been your biggest accomplishment of the past year? What are you still aspiring to achieve in rap?
I think my biggest accomplishment last year was getting my own day in the state of Georgia. I was so shocked, I couldn’t even show my emotions, because I’m real shy. [For 2023], I just want to drop a good ass album that everybody loves so it helps solidify me. I want that level-up album. You know how everybody has those moments in their career where it’s like, “He was doing this and this and then he dropped this.” I feel like I’ve had those albums for every stage of my career. I had all my mixtapes, then Savage Mode came, and that was a pivotal moment. Then Issa Album built up, “Bank Account” built up, and then I Am > I Was was another pivotal moment, with “A lot” with J. Cole, the Grammy, all that shit. I’m just trying to keep that trend going upward.
Drake has also been hinting about going on tour. Can fans hope to see a Drake x 21 tour in 2023?
Yeah, I’m just waiting on him to let me know what we’re doing. More than likely yeah, I think so.
You mentioned earlier how you like to play R&B in the car instead of your music. There are entire compilation videos of you singing R&B slow jams on Instagram. Are you tapped into the current R&B scene at all? And if so, who’s been your favorite R&B act to listen to?
I only listen to old R&B honestly. I’ve been listening to Dangerously In Love a lot lately. That’s been my No. 1 album, and then probably that Jagged Edge J.E. Heartbreak album. And then my typical SWV, Xscape, Usher, Keith Sweat, the regular stuff.