Issa Interview in Atlanta with Genius and Rockstar 21 Savage

  • Interview: Thom Bettridge
  • Photography: Gunner Stahl

“No questions about Amber Rose,” 21 Savage’s manager says, and it’s the fourth time I’ve heard it today. We are sitting in a photo studio across the street from the legendary Magic City strip club, surrounded by the bounty of Savage’s rider, which includes copious trays of chicken wings with three different specified glazes. The rapper himself has been busy living the lyrics of his own hit song, “FaceTime”-ing in his green room for the past two hours. As though on cue, Savage silently floats into the studio looking like the cartoon of himself on the cover of his Gold-certified Issa Album: full Gucci look, corded high-top fade, styrofoam double cup, and a sword tattoo sitting between his piercing stare. He puts his cup on a wooden stool as we face off to play Mortal Kombat 4 on the studio’s arcade machine. Savage chooses Liu Kang, and a couple high-kicks to the dome later, raises his biceps and says the first words he’s said to the room all day:

“I won.”

In conversation, Savage is as frugal with his words as he is in his songs, which are known for their mumbling and repetitive hooks. Speaking in his green room surrounded by a small entourage, he takes seemingly endless pauses before answering each and every question, pouring himself into the winding veins of the blunt he is rolling, before returning back with brutally streamlined answers.

Thom Bettridge

21 Savage

What have you been up to these days?

Being a rapper.

Listening closely to the lyrics of 21 Savage and the countless Soundcloud rappers who have self-generated in his image is a process that affirms the older generation’s suspicions that text-messaging will inevitably destroy the English language. Savage’s words are terse, declarative, disjointed, violent, and, at times, nonsensical. However, to judge these lyrics next to the measuring stick of our pre-existing idea of narrative is as headless as saying that a four-year-old can paint a Picasso. Much like the Modernists 100 years before us, we are living in a time when rapid technological advancement has broken our language and allowed us to generate new forms of meaning. Words, in this new order, are simply another gestural tool in a multimedia toolkit, and they are to be used in whatever manner can bring the right effect across through a WiFi, plasma, or Bluetooth. Evidence of this phenomenon is as easy to find in the lyrics of 100-Million-plus-view YouTube pop videos as it in their comment sections.

"We like gas, we like gas, gas, gas
We like cash, we like cash, cash, cash
Wanna fuck me, I’m like yas, yas, yas
VVS’ dripping, dance, dance, dance
Money conversations, money conversations, money convo
Money conversations, money conversations, money convo
Money conversations, money conversations, money convo
Money conversations, money conversations, money convo"

By repeating short phrases ad nauseam in his verses, and even in the hooks of songs such as “Bad Guy,” “Money Convo,” or “Bank Account,” Savage methodically unravels the meaning of his own words, translating lyrical content into rhythmic and chant-like flows of pure energy. While this technique shared by many of his Atlanta contemporaries, including the members of Migos with whom he dropped a surprise album this Halloween, the manner in which he has mastered this effect while simultaneously garnering an individual personality cult makes 21 Savage a genius. 21 Savage a genius. Genius. Genius.

21 Savage wears JW Anderson sweater and Amiri jeans.

21 Savage wears Gucci shirt.

What things do you think about when you are conjuring your lyrics?

I’m a reality rapper. I write about things I know about.

And has your reality changed since you started rapping?

Hell, yeah.

What changed?

My whole life did.

Do you think it’s gotten better?

That’s a good ass question. I got money. But—I don’t know—is that a dumb answer?

Money and the goal of being rich are the subject, object, and end in itself of many of Savage’s songs. In conversation, Savage tells me that he has quit wearing chains and has stored his collection in a safe deposit box somewhere in Atlanta. Why? Because of the anxious and thirsty relationship a chain has to the reality of being rich.

“The richest people I’ve ever met didn’t have jewelry,” Savage explains, “So I ain’t wearing no jewelry, because I want to be rich! At first motherfuckers do shit because they ain’t ever had nothing. A lot of these niggas be having more jewelry than money in their bank account. I ain’t like that.”

Does spending money get boring?

It gets stupid.

What’s a smart thing to do with money?

Stocks and shit. Real estate.

Being rich, in Savage’s lyrics, is not a fixed state, but rather a constantly evolving flow of desires that contains many other states and emotions. This range is evident in the slow and melancholic track “Dead People,” which uses the double entendre of dead presidents—“I be hanging with the dead people, I done fell in love with dead people”—to convey the notion of simultaneously being haunted and enamored by money. “Hell no,” Savage says, correcting me as I share this theory to him, “The song is about having money. I’m not hanging out with dead people.” And yet, in the world of Savage’s songs and the reality they correspond to, money, violence, and style are inherently unified parts of the same thing.

“The richest people I’ve ever met didn’t have jewelry, so I ain’t wearing no jewelry, because I want to be rich!”

So when did you get the sword tattooed on your head?

When my little brother got killed.

Do all the tattoos you have mean something like that?

Shit, yeah. I just got dead people all over me.

And when did you start wearing the Saint Laurent jackets you talk about in your songs?

When I was rich. When I was broke, I didn’t know what the hell that shit was.

What were you into before that?


  • Interview: Thom Bettridge
  • Photography: Gunner Stahl
  • Styling: Kim Alex Hall
  • Grooming: Kenny
  • Production: Rebecca Hearn
  • Production Assistant: Deb Never