If there was any form of hip-hop that dominated 2017, it was emo rap. In the past year, a small but notable group of rappers influenced not only by Tupac and Biggie but also by Paramore and My Chemical Romance, fusing trap beats with rock guitars and depressive lyrics, has emerged to great acclaim. It's given us enormous hits and cult figures such as the late Lil Peep, Lil Aaron, and, yes, XXXTentacion. It’s also given us unlikely yet massive hits: Who could forget the complete domination of Lil Uzi Vert's "XO Tour Llif3," a Spotify smash with the utterly dispiriting chorus "Push me to the edge/All my friends are dead"?
Given the growth of emo rap, it’s worth wondering: Does goth rap exist as well? For that, we need only to look to one artist: 21 Savage. You might have recently heard him counting his millions on the single "Bank Account."
In many ways, 21 is the antithesis of his contemporaries. He eschews the glamorous image and verbal acrobatics of someone like Young Thug in favor of a straightforward, hard-edged gangsta vibe. He raps in a clear, deep monotone so cold and devoid of emotion you aren’t surprised to learn that one of his songs is called "No Heart" and that it contains lines such as "They say crack kills/Nigga, my crack sells," delivered matter-of-factly, without embellishment. Asked about the cross-shaped tattoo on his forehead, he corrected the interviewer — "Issa knife" — and when the response went viral, he named his album after the reply: Issa Album.
21 Savage is the most threatening man in rap, but what makes him goth? He doesn’t fit the traditional mold of the infamous subculture. He doesn’t wear all black, and he doesn’t seem to be obsessed with vampires. All that he really shares with goths is a certain darkness, and much of that is owed to the beats he raps over. The producer Metro Boomin, famous for “Jumpman” and “Bad & Boujee,” has completed two collaborative projects with 21, 2016’s Savage Mode and last year’s Without Warning, which also featured Offset. On both, he applies a sinister touch to his usual atmospheric, airy production style. With ominous bell tones on “Ghostface Killers” and “No Heart,” sinister sound effects such as howling wolves on “Nightmare,” and morose melodies throughout, he weaves an evocative tableau of terror.
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Yet it’s the rapper himself who makes the music less like Halloween the celebration and more like Halloween the movie. Having come up on Atlanta’s mean streets, he knows the difference between movie monsters and the real ones. Especially on Issa Album, he reflects on the true terrors of the streets: murder as a constant, drugs as a coping mechanism, a cycle unbroken through years of systemic abuse and neglect. “Police gunned his brother down/This shit too hard to handle,” he raps on "Nothin New." "Loadin' up his chopper/He gon' show 'em black lives matter."
It’s the combination of all of these factors that gives 21 Savage a distinct voice in the crowded rap game, a voice one shouldn’t hesitate to describe as goth. It’s that uniqueness, that darkness that’s made him an essential counterpoint to his more lighthearted contemporaries and made him a sought-after collaborator, giving an edge to songs such as Post Malone’s "Rockstar" and Drake's "Sneakin." It’s what made him pop out on a 2016 XXL Freshman Cypher, which he shared with Lil Uzi Vert. Their careers have diverged since then, but both have achieved success in ways no one would have anticipated.