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The first thing that happens when a listener presses play on Savage Mode II is a double-take. “Is that… Morgan Freeman?”
Yes, yes it is.
And so, you’re now all the way locked in, expectantly prepared for whatever other curveballs Atlanta co-conspirators 21 Savage and Metro Boomin want to throw your way. This is exactly what should happen when the concept of a sequel project to a beloved album/mixtape — or to any creative work, really — is announced. Fortunately for our heroes, not only do they leave the gate strong, but they also stick the landing as Savage Mode II lives up to all the hype of its predecessor — then surpasses it, easily.
It probably does seem easy to make all this appear so effortless. Maybe it’s Savage’s laconic flow or the steady confidence with which Metro pushes the boundaries of his sonic experimentation. But the truth is so many “sequel” efforts in hip-hop often fall flat, failing to reach the heights promised by the sequential naming convention. I’ve written about this before — multiple times — but the axiom remains as true as ever: Exceptions to the rule are (mostly) few and far between. While I’m not sure what it says that Savage Mode II released within a month of Big Sean’s Detroit 2, it’s clear that as the music business flounders in the wake of massive shutdowns, further artists will probably see the 2K franchise model as a quick boost of income. So long as they follow the blueprint laid by these two projects, that shouldn’t be (too much of) a problem.
The first ingredient, naturally, is a fan-favorite, possibly even introductory project. The original Savage Mode qualifies. Released in 2016 in the wake of 21’s buzzy The Slaughter Tape and Slaughter King mixtapes, it was many fans’ first chance to observe the monotone, horror-obsessed rapper on top-flight production — a prospect made all the more exciting by Metro’s own, parallel rise to prominence after contributing multiple hits to Future’s extensive, explosive catalog. After producing the Monster mixtape and 11 tracks on What A Time To Be Alive, fans were intrigued to see what he could do with burgeoning, unpolished talent.
The result wasn’t just a fan favorite, it was also a launching pad for 21 Savage’s impending superstardom. While the lanky, laid-back rapper has always secretly been pretty funny and much more expressive than he’s given credit for being, Metro’s guidance helped bring his personality to the foreground — especially on the Future-featuring “X,” which also proved that he could touch on topics of the heart without describing it as a potential target for .223 caliber bullets. Now, five years, five projects between the two of them, and a whole Grammy win later, both of those traits are in full evidence on the highly-anticipated sequel.
So, about Morgan Freeman. To put it plainly, having the most recognizable voice in all of entertainment (he’s been God how many times now?) narrate the project is a stroke of genius. The message it sends to the listener — that this is a classy, big-budget operation — doesn’t just elevate the work, it clears the “improves on the original” bar right from the outset. Freeman’s presence is so head-spinning and entertaining — hearing GOD explain the difference between snitches and rats makes such a world view seem not only logical but morally correct somehow, even though you know it’s just foolish-ass street talk — that it’s almost impossible to feel let down.
Then, there’s the music. Metro digs deep into his sample bag, coming up with the eerie, ghostly chant of the menacing “Runnin,” the earwig, iconic 50 Cent chorus on “Many Men,” and the soulful, RZA-esque hum on “Said N Done.” When he sticks to original sounds, he crafts the angelic, perky synths on “Mr. Right Now” featuring Drake, the old-school bop of “Steppin On N****s,” and a sparkling violin solo on “Rich N**** Sh*t” with Young Thug. It’d have been easy for him to rest on his laurels — instead, he steps his game up to remind listeners why those producer tags still nab our attention after all these years.
21, who’s had five years of growth as an artist since their first outing, no longer needs Metro’s guidance to craft charismatic hooks or draw that clever, quirky humor out of him. He’s also got plenty more fodder for content since being arrested and held by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents early last year for having an expired visa, dating and breaking up with Slutwalk proprietor Amber Rose, and winning a Grammy for Best Rap Song for “A Lot” with J. Cole. He succinctly addresses the former on “My Dawg”: “N****s keep talkin’ that UK sh*t like I don’t got AKs / Like, ’cause I was born overseas, these motherf*ckers ain’t gon’ spray-spray.” He also tackles his relationship woes on “RIP Luv”: “Got my first taste of love and I thank you / Savage, never let another woman taint you / Fallin’ victim to my feelings, something I can’t do / Get revenge on every bitch, even if it ain’t you.”
With Savage Mode II, the two Atlanta mainstays stage a family reunion that’s as insightful as it is entertaining. We see how they’ve developed as artists and how they’ve grown as men, as well as how those changes have strengthened and evolved their working chemistry. While they’re as synchronized as ever, their individual growth informs the output, making it more personal, more polished, and more poignant, expanding their range beyond just hood shootouts and flexing on haters over cavernous, 808-driven production. The five years between projects makes all the difference, but the experience and wisdom they gained in that time still matter more. So whatever happens in the next five years, let’s all hope there’s enough to drive a Savage Mode III that continues to live up to the name.
Savage Mode II is out now via Slaughter Gang, LLC/Epic/Boominati Worldwide/Republic. Get it here.