Notes on the Real Version of 21 Savage’s Issa

"Today, I’m using the smooth-ass wi-fi at Starbucks to see how the album stacks up against the one I invented in my head."

Talkhouse’s Baja correspondent, Victor Vazquez, aka KOOL A.D., hit me last week expressing an interest in reviewing Issa, the new LP from 21 Savage. Great! Then he filed having never heard the record, due to “bootsy wi-fi.” Luckily for all of us, he writes beautiful fiction, so his speculations on what he thought the album might sound like went, to borrow a phrase from that review, “super-duper fire flames hardbody karate.” Here, he reflects on all he’s learned after streaming the album in a Starbucks.
—Amy Rose Spiegel, Editor-in-Chief, Talkhouse Music

Remember the other day when I reviewed 21 Savage’s new album, Issa, having never listened to it because my internet was fucked up? Well, yesterday, instead of having it fixed, I drove out to some natural hot springs and took a soak, so my internet is still fucked. Today, I’m using the smooth-ass wi-fi at Starbucks to see how the album stacks up against the one I invented in my head.


This joint is pretty much how I guessed it would be—maybe even more straightforward, actually. In case you missed my last review, I assumed the song was going to be about the double-edged sword of fame, its privileges and discontents, etc., but with some “I’m still hood, tho” caveats. That’s all definitely going on here. The first line is literally “rags to riches”—he runs through the requisite bars from there. I also should have guessed he’d insist he really does all the skreet shit everyone else just raps about. Even though it’s a cliché, I’ll give bruh the benefit of the doubt. He has believable delivery.

This is well-put-together music; very “of its time.” The bars are decent and straightforward, with a nice, relaxed flow. The hi-hats aren’t as fast as I thought they’d be. The beat is nice, sparse, and in C minor—a real go-to key, I ventured a guess that this one, considering the pop sensibilities of the title alone, might be a rare curveball in the major key, a dicey bet that I, regrettably, lost. Tried to get too fancy, should have quit while I was ahead, whatever, man, it’s in the past. I like this song.

“Bank Account”

Here are those hi-hat stutters I was talking about—still not the crazy-fast ones I was thinking of, but there’s definitely some repeat button. It did start with no drums, but then the drums dropped like right away, so it isn’t exactly how I called it. I like dude’s consistently mellow and subtle use of Auto-Tune melodies gracefully sprankled here and there.

Lyrically, this is exactly what I thought it would be: Dude says he’s rich in like 30 different ways. He has a sort of vague, Toni Morrison–esque lyrical style, not in terms of any one particular bar so much as an impressionistic haze of affectation. This dude is talking about he’ll shoot somebody over Twitter beef. Very “of the moment” stuff.

“Close My Eyes”

This one does the thing where the drums don’t come in right away. It’s slightly less “heartfelt, earnest, and vulnerable” than I had called it—it has all the trappings of a straightforward trap song—but the hook does go, “I can’t got to sleep, I’m way too high, dog / I see dead bodies when I close my eyes, dog,” so there’s some pathos and vulnerability there. I thought it would be a little more emo, but I like it. It’s actually better than I guessed it would be. The hook does most of the emotional legwork so that the bars in the verse can swag around and do whatever.

“Bad Business”

That weird, screechy sound—what is that? MetroBoomin uses it a lot. Some sort of siren-type thing? 21 Savage is doing those pitched-around kicks; those go hard. He’s consistent, you must admit.

Definitely a lot of repeat-button hi-hats. Lyrically, I was pretty off this time—he’s not talking about the general concept of bad business so much as saying that he himself is “bad business,” as in, like, nobody to play with. He mentions that he doesn’t have a driver’s license, but still drives—I spit that same bar a few years ago on this joint I did with my cousin Polo, haha. “Your baby mama sleepin’ on a blow-up” is a pretty cold bar. I woulda probably called it classist if Drake said it, tho, haha.

“Baby Girl”

This isn’t a “pleasant pop chord progression,” like I had called. These chords are more on some crazy, avant-tonal jazz, Caribbean-carnival shit. This is the craziest beat so far. Some hi-hat stutters, but not super crazy. This joint is like if Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop” was on a lot of horse tranquilizers at a Haitian circus.

“Thug Life”

This beat go crazy, like weird, super-hazy, delayed, reverby gospel samples in reverse? Wait, naw, or is that some old doo-wop girl group? Wait, wait, that’s En Vogue. “Give Him Something He Can Feel,” haha. The harmony game on that was crazy, hella doo-wop and gospel-y. MetroBoomin a real one for this, he from the Bay? Nope, just checked—Saint Louis. Thaswasup; I fuck with STL. Yep, “feel like 2Pac,” I called that one. Not to toot my own horn—I guess that was a hella obvious one, haha.

This beat is crazy, tho. Such a graceful flip; hella well done. MetroBoomin and NoID are actually wild comparable? Man, this album is nice, dude’s bars are hella Toni Morrison. Understated, but never a misstep. He “makes it look easy,” as they say.

OK, I’m finna take a quick break to listen to that En Vogue joint…


This shit slap; what’s En Vogue been up to? Too lazy to Google rn, plus I gotta get back to reviewing this album.

These chords are wild classic R&B stuff. I feel like I’ve heard this progression on like 10 other songs, but I never get sick of it. This joint has a more “romantic” feel than I thought it would, pause.

This track isn’t quite a “triple-entendre about mutual masturbation, oral sex and a long distance relationship” like I predicted, although it does allude to all of those subjects, or, rather, the potential for interpretation is there. The hook’s like, “I’m too drunk to text, so can we FaceTime?” which is a good hook—appropriately vague, yet evoking a specific as-of-yet-not-quite-fully-described-as-such feeling. I can imagine a car full of dudes screaming along this song on the drive home from an unsuccessful night at the club, haha. Maybe stopping to get some, like, chili cheese fries or a burger somewhere, haha.

“Nothin’ New”

Here’s some piano. Zaytoven’s on this beat. He probably worked on a couple of these already, and I missed the tag—matter fact, I don’t know why I assumed these were all MetroBoomin beats. Zay and Boomin work together a lot tho, right? Regardless, this piano go hard. I heard Zay play a keytar? That’s tight, haha.

These bars are wild hard and serious. He said, “Treat us like slaves, then they lock us up in cages” but then in the ad-libs, he’s like, “turn up”—that’s an insane ad-lib for that line. He said, “Used to sell dope, nigga, now I can’t vote.” That’s a hard bar—very organically political. He said, “They killed Martin Luther King, and all he did was spoke.” That seems like the most “classically woke” bar thus far. His raps are wild straightforward, but effective. The delivery is hella casual and deadpan; I fuck with it.

I didn’t accurately predict the level of complexity of this joint, thought it would literally be “nothing new”—sort of a durational trap tone poem, Andy Warhol-esque. Instead, he pulled more of an old one-two switcheroo: the old, “I’m not trying to get political, but…”


He said, “Mama, there’s a lot of secrets that I had to keep from you / Got in so much trouble [you] thought the teachers had beef with you”—that’s a bar. He said, “Used to leave the sto’ runnin / Now it’s Louis [Vuitton] rags when my nose runnin”—that’s a bar. There’s hella bars in this one. This one’s more or less how I thought it would be, with just a slight turn: While I suggested he would say that he feels numb *despite* the money, etc., he’s actually saying he feels numb *because* of the money, etc., which is an important distinction and a more compelling concept. As on “Nothin’ New,” I didn’t give dude quite enough credit.

“Dead People”

Nice ass synth; lightweight Legend of Zelda vibes, haha. These chords are wild delicate and haunting. “Percocets got me in my feelins.” Very “of the moment” raps. Ha, I fully missed on this one: “Dead People” primarily refers to money a fairly well-trod metaphor, but it still touches on the topics I guessed at—death is a vague general metaphor for literally almost anything. Very gothic. The image of dead people in a man’s pants pocket is the engine to the power of this metaphor. This track is like a fine cognac.

“Money Convo”

“Levis- and Adidas-ass nigga,” ha. Oh, ha, he even put that same “ha” in the ad-libs; dude’s noice. Hella bars on this one. This guy’s into polygamy—thaswasup, more power to him. Dude, this fool just said, “You beat your bitch ’cause she ride ’round with her ass out,” goddamn, whoever that fool immortalized by that bar, on what’s probably going to be a gold or platinum album, probably finna commit suicide, damn.

That little horror-movie piano line finally made its extremely late entrance, or maybe it already showed up before and I ain’t notice. This track go hard. Definitely not a phone conversation with the phone filter on one of the voices like I ventured a guess at, but that really was just wishful thinking on my part, haha. You know who should do that idea, tho? Meek Mill. Feel like he’d kill something like that for no reason.


OK, I got this one right—this is the love song. Alt-feminist icon Amber Rose got dude in his feelings. Dude is literally like: “You got me in my feelings.” The mild Auto-Tune singing is tasteful and classy—if mayhaps a touch sweet at times. Nevertheless, this song provides some necessary tenderness at this juncture of the album.

“Whole Lot”

Nice use of excessive repeat-button hi-hats on this one. Some sort of “vintage warp” voicing on the synth? Bruh is running through every southern trap flow trope—this song is a veritable encyclopedia; he has any and every lick and riff figured out, short burst, sing-songy, limerick-y—real country-type stuff. He’s a good rapper. This is a high-quality rap song. I took a wild stab that this would be a “list” joint of things he had a “whole lot” of (whips, bitches, chains) and while he does get into those topics, it’s not in that list format. Again, I was working off just the title, venturing some dicey guesses—you can’t win ’em all.

“Seven Minute Freestyle”

I’m walking into this one already assuming I’m going to like it because this album has been hella good so far, and I’m a fan of hella long verses with no hooks. Yeah, I was right—I like this song already. I was expecting to be a real bar-fest, and it is, but it’s almost more of a flow-fest, really. In keeping with the encyclopedic nature of the last joint, dude is mostly good at playing with rhythm. He raps like a drummer. It’s kinda less what he says and more how he says it, even. Toni Morrison–esque.

Boomin and Young Sizzle are on this one, and the beat do, in fact, slap. Nice, loose flows—sounds like there’s actually a fair amount of “real freestyling” on here, which is obviously a murky and endlessly nuanced concept that’s nearly impossible to pin down at the end of the day. Where, in fact, do cognition, invention, communication and memory intersect with the physicality, of verbal expression, and what are the mechanics, the poetics, the aesthetics, the trappings and echoes of that intersection?

Bruh’s doing some Juvenile flows, running through various Cash Money and No Limit flows. He really do, in fact, be gassin’. “Thirty, Steph Curry on the sheets” is a tight li’l triple- (quadruple? yeah, quadruple…wait, quintuple-) entendre that could refer to a ménage à trois, a hat trick, a 30-round automatic weapon (either literally sitting “on the sheets,” or else representing either a phallus or the concept of “killing” a pussy), or any combination of those five ideas in a concise, three-syllable ABA rhyme scheme, owing to the fortunate fact that Steph Curry’s last name rhymes with his jersey number, and that he also happens to lead the league in three-pointers. And that’s just one bar—half a bar, really, a quarter, even. This song is seven minutes long. According to my napkin math, that makes this dude probably tied with me for the best rapper alive.

In conclusion, I would say Issa = 4:44 = Aztec Yoga. Go cop all of those.

Victor Vazquez, aka KOOL A.D., is a rapper/singer/producer/painter/ novelist/astrologist/male model/exotic dancer just trying to be free and live his life in a big beautiful world governed by brutal, soulless men enslaved by their own toxic ideologies.