Of the 10 up-and-coming artists who graced this year’s coveted XXL Freshman cover, Atlanta rapper 21 Savage and Chicago MC G Herbo were two of the least surprising honorees.
21’s rise has been truly meteoric; since releasing his first project, The Slaughter Tape, a year and a half ago, he’s already collaborated with some of rap’s biggest names, including Drake (“Sneakin’”), Future (“X”), and Meek Mill (“Offended”). Meanwhile, G Herbo, the 21-year-old who’s often praised as the finest lyricist to emerge from his city’s loosely defined “drill” scene, was one of the notable snubs left off the 2015 cover, so it was practically a given that he would make this year’s issue.
Considering all of that, it was unsurprising that the pairing of the rappers brought out a packed crowd on Friday to Maplewood venue Myth and its 3,200-capacity room.
G Herbo’s setlist showed his renowned range as a rapper, with song choices including turn-up bangers and lyrical fan favorites alike. Early on in his set, he launched into records that challenge the notion that Chicago street rap is overly chorus-driven and simplistic. He played last year’s hook-free “Retro Flow” and, later, went a capella for much of 2013’s “4 Minutes of Hell Pt. 3.” Higher-energy records like his “Computers” remix and “I’m Rollin’” showed how thoroughly Herb can turn up a crowd, but it was in the lyricism of those other songs that he showed his unique gifts as an MC.
After Herb left, it was a long while before 21 Savage took the stage. When he finally arrived a little after 10 p.m., it was clear the crowd had plenty of energy left to watch the 24-year-old who’s arguably the hottest rapper in the country. At the same time, 21 is definitely an acquired taste. While many hip-hop purists have ridiculed him for his unconventional monotone, the fan base he’s rapidly built is ultimately more vocal than those haters.
The crowd first erupted at the sound of the opening piano notes from 21’s Lotto Savage collab “Dirty K,” then exploded at an entirely greater volume upon hearing the intro to his biggest song of 2015, the supremely menacing “Red Opps.” 21 also played his Hot 100-charting hits “X” and “No Heart,” both from his Savage Mode EP, as well as that project’s “Mad High.”
“Mad High” is an uncharacteristic track for 21 considering how loud and almost maniacal his voice gets, and luckily, his vocals throughout his set had more in common with his delivery on that song than they did to his mumbled deliveries on stuff like “No Heart.”
While 21’s underwhelming performance at this year’s BET Hip Hop Awards indicated he had yet to figure out his style as a performer, he was noticeably more confident on Friday night. Unfortunately, his set was disappointingly short, and he never returned to the stage for an encore.
Considering the way things are going for 21, though, he’ll play to another sizable crowd in Minnesota soon, and by then, he’ll have a bigger discography to do justice to.
Critic's bias: Herb has been one of my favorite Chicago rappers ever since I heard his verse on his Lil Bibby collab “Kill Shit,” and while I understand why many opinionated hip-hop fans consider 21 Savage to be trash, I’m entirely pro-21.
The crowd: One of the youngest I’ve seen in a long time, which makes sense since it was all-ages and 21 Savage and G Herbo are just 24 and 21, respectively.
Overheard in the crowd: "I drank so much, I’m surprised I haven’t passed out by now!" said a young lady standing next to me. She would later lean over to disappointedly tell me she and her boyfriend didn’t have more money to spend on drinks.
Random notebook dump: The “Computers” instrumental has got to be one of the most hypnotizing beats of the 2010s.