In the renegade theater of hip-hop that lived outside of the East and West Coast industry hubs between 1992 to 2003, Pen & Pixel became the most satisfying translators of Southern rap’s magnanimity into 2-D. Even during their heyday, their ultra-conspicuous album artwork felt baroque, dynastic, and absurd, like medieval portraiture made by the hand of a Y2K-era Rembrandt gifted an early edition of the Adobe Creative Suite. With their delicious mise-en-scènes — images of cars, blades, gemstones and goblets ballooned behind artists standing over kingdoms of bound bills — titans like Master P and Juvenile became instantly immortalized on these covers, formalized as heroes while their mythmaking was still in progress.
Though the agency shuttered shortly after 9/11, little has fundamentally changed in spirit since their initial boom. The same imperial appetite, Übermensch attitude and yen for fabulous drama thrives today, and with special enthusiasm in the Atlanta-based friendship of producer Metro Boomin and rapper 21 Savage, who fittingly tapped the brothers Brauch to come out of retirement and supply the art for the pair’s latest, “Savage Mode II.”
The 48-minute-long album — which is projected to debut at No. 1 this week and will likely colonize the car stereos, patio monitors and AirPods of Spotify users ages 16 to 35 for the forthcoming months — is a sequel to the twosome’s 2016 career-clinching mixtape, “Savage Mode.” It’s contrived to be several orders of magnitude more evil than its original, an orgy of signifiers telegraphing darkness, dominance and a fascination with the saga that continues to permeate contemporary hip-hop. It also staggers with A&R trappings so substantial, so obvious, that even the cover feels like an undersell of its longing intent.
You’ll find the zeitgeist in “Savage Mode II,” sliced along several axes. It’s a continuation of a canon, similar to the sequels and threequels that plague our film franchises; a mythos steadily being unfurled, not unlike the ones that prick our political stage; and the solidification of a well-matched, yin-and-yanging duet in Savage and Metro. The relationship between the two is one of the current musical moment’s most-compatible alliances: St. Louis-born Metro Boomin is among the gleamingest, glossiest producers associated with the sounds of trap and tech hub, Atlanta, and his varnish gives 21’s Jason Voorhees-as-Colonel-Kurtz sotto voce a big, orchestral pit to play in and magnify in relief.
Much has been made of Savage’s voice as it relates to his past — a fascination with his laconic delivery and tragedy-plagued childhood has in some ways diminished him to mainstream hip-hop’s favorite PTSD survivor. Yet Savage has worked meaningfully to hew dimensions to his portrait — he is both extremely funny and a successful sublimator of his death drive into a warranted darkness. The video for “Runnin’,” the album’s opening track, earnestly and literally distills this by taking his 2019 Grammy statue and passing it among friends and foes in Atlanta over a sample of Diana Ross’s “I Thought It Took a Little Time,” which Metro Boomin has mutated into something that scans like occult.
The theater of operations in blockbuster rap have become a game meant to build anticipation and arch toward classic in seemingly most new releases — the II in “Savage Mode II” carries all the psychic thrust of expectation, and one can feel the urgency here to supersede “Savage Mode” in its intended ferocity. The feature list is short — which is not, by its nature, a virtue — and blue-chip, with herculean figures Young Thug, Young Nudy and Drake providing unfortunately forgettable value-additions. Morgan Freeman — who may as well have been summoned by a particularly expensive feature on the celebrity shoutout app Cameo — shows up to provide voice-of-god interludes and narrative faculties designed to inspire awe by virtue of his sheer baritone and involvement.
Yet for all the big-budget pyrotechnics, when it comes time to figure out what populist music sounded like in late 2020, “Savage Mode II” would be a correct and reliable primary source to pull from for what its marketing promises and delivers — darkness, writ cartoonishly. But what they’ve also done is create a world so insistent on its own cinema and legacy that it can feel desperately monumental largely — and simply — by good design.