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21 Savage And The Marketability of Dark Hip-Hop Artists

(Billboard via YouTube)

“My Choppa Hate Niggas” by Metro Boomin and 21 Savage, a relatively deep cut off of Metro Boomin’s 2017 project Without Warning, peaked at #73 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Some thoughts on that:

  • How alarmed, if at all, were Billboard editors at such a track title?
  • If they weren’t shook, why not? Was it surreal enough to be laughable rather than concerning? Was “Bank Account” so infectious that no one outside of hip-hop thought of 21 as more than a violently fun rapper caricature?
  • If they were shook, isn’t it crazy how unavoidably big hip-hop has gotten? To the point where algorithmic music biz entities have to include songs like “My Choppa Hate Niggas” in their metrics?

I love that 21 Savage is thriving. He deserves it, and he’s producing more good through his platform than most artists of his stature are/have at 26 years old. I also think when done with integrity, music made by street/trap artists (an artist can be one or both) is invaluable. It’s important historical content, with hyperreal stories and personas giving us an honest account of America’s post-Reagan aftermath with no bullshit. But for the same reason, I am surprised by mainstream brands—undoubtedly ran by White folks who don’t really listen to 21—enthusiastically associating with him.

Warner Bros., NBC, and The NBA have all linked up with 21 recently. Soundtracking a Mortal Kombat trailer was fitting, performing in front of his hometown Hawks (albeit disastrously) and getting Kevin Garnett’s attention proved he had the juice, and giving financial advice to White people was a great look.

While his evolving image as a rare fiscally responsible rapper who serves his community has preceded him, his discography, despite artistic growth, is still made up of the same stuff: 808s, a chilling monotone delivery, and vivid recollections of gunfights, childhood hardships, and dope dealing.

While many of 21’s lyrics are productive reflections that guide him away from his tough past, he also is who he is. When your daily reality growing up is one where people close to you die suddenly and violently, social awareness beyond the block is not a priority. He still uses “bitch” in his music. He still has moments where he revels in bloodlust. He’s still a street nigga that made it, someone that wouldn’t find a problem with describing his riches as “Jewish money.” My concern has nothing to do with the man’s content, however. What bothers me is how quickly 21 has been OKed to represent popular entities.

The Jewish money bar on “asmr” from his latest album I am > I was could be a blip or the tip of the iceberg. I don’t see 21 Savage’s shine stopping anytime soon, and as long as he keeps pushing this new chapter of his life’s story as a wiser, more positive human being, he’ll continue to have eyes on him. On one hand, major bag alert. On the other hand, a higher place to fall from if a string of complaints about his lyrical content flood in.

Ultimately, this is a litmus test of American sensibilities. Can the mainstream stomach 21 Savage? Or will brands and family-friendly influencers trigger a national gag reflex once they read the ingredients of what they’re consuming?

To be fair, 21 himself isn’t a fan of how gratuitously violent his music is, but he says he continues to emphasize such themes because it’s how he eats. Now that he has casual listeners beyond hip-hop, what happens? Does 21 say “Fuck the fame” and stop himself from becoming a poster boy for a reformed thug movement? Does he seize the opportunity by putting out more conscious music and milking good press in 2019? Or does nothing change, and the public continues to live with the occasional “My Choppa Hate Niggas” as long as it comes with another “Bank Account” and no “problematic” bars?

Clearly, this is all speculation. It shouldn’t be treated as more than that. I want hip-hop to win, and I hope minor controversies don’t plague 21 Savage’s time in the limelight. However, if the tone of the conversation about 21 quickly changes for the worse, don’t get swept up in it. His story has been the same from the jump, so the only factor that could possibly change is how people want to see him.



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