While screaming in public or jumping out of a theater seat might be the more memorable moments of seeing a good horror flick, the parts that keep you awake at night are always the softer, chilling bits—the ones that make your head churn and your muscles freeze. Those are the kind of moments that make Savage Mode the monster of an album it is. There’s nothing outright explosive about 21 Savage's bars or Metro Boomin’s beats, but there doesn’t need to be. They’ll get your mouth dry and your palms sweating with little more than a whisper. Their success lies in verses thick as blood and hooks that move like a pit of snakes. It’s the kind of rousing horror that draws you close only to chill you head-to-toe with the feeling of hot breath on the back of your neck. And more importantly, it’ll get you coming back for more.
Much of the crafted chill of this album came at the hands of Alex Tumay, the album’s engineer who also worked on Young Thug’s Jeffery and Slime Season trilogy, Travis Scott’s Days Before Rodeo, and Kanye’s The Life of Pablo, just to name a few. Tumay said he went into the project wanting to get the most out of Savage’s chill-factor by tapping into his tracks’ sonics in a way he felt hadn’t really been done yet.
“He always had this vibe that I feel like people never really tried to get out of him sonically. Like on "Red Opps" and stuff, it's built kind of spooky, but without effects to make it go 100 percent there. When me and Metro sat down and started on the project, it was really very bare bones, like it was just dry vocals over a beat. And his voice is so gritty… It's very aggressive and kind of harsh; it just kind of made sense to drown it in reverb and go 100 percent into the whole horror film kind of feel to it,” Tumay said.
A big part of how Tumay created that signature ghostly sonic environment lies in the deliberate softness of 21 Savage’s voice compared to the rest of the track. “It was intentional, because the vocals are quiet, but not they're not inaudible. They're just a little dipped down from what I normally do, and it was on purpose to make the instrumentals come through and give it a little more of that haunted kind of feel,” he explained.
But the power of subtlety extends far beyond the vocals in the composition of Savage Mode. Tumay said, while it’s tied with “Ocean Drive” for his favorite overall track on the album, “Savage Mode” is his favorite mix off the project “because it's got really subtle moments, like there's a gunshot sound that's super quiet. Typically when someone adds those kind of stingers, they're super loud on the song.”
Tumay also said much of the album’s raw materials came to him with some distinct inherent qualities for him to work with, diverging sonically from recordings made in a traditional studio setting. While the location in which 21 Savage chose to record a good portion of Savage Mode perfectly lends itself to the scary movie aesthetics of the album in narrative alone, it also directly contributed to its sonic makeup.
“I know he did a lot of it in the basement of his own house, which is why on ‘Real’ on the hook, you can hear kids in the background,” said Tumay. “They definitely lent themselves to the feel, because there's a lot of ambient noise in there. Recording in a basement sounds like you recorded in a basement, it doesn't sound like you recorded in a studio. There's definitely a quality to his voice that feels very lo-fi.”
He explained that every album he works on is “100 percent different,” but his process always starts the same. Because the mix editor gets the tracks at the tail-end of the process, he said he listens to the them over and over to get a feel for where the artists are going, writing down “moments in the songs, certain points in the hooks [where] a certain effect might be good.” After sitting down with an unmixed Savage Mode, he was immediately drawn to “Ocean Drive,” and let his approach to that track drive his approach to the rest of the album.
“‘Ocean Drive’ was the first song I did, and it's the one where he's kind of singing, which is where I feel most comfortable, in more melodic elements. I wanted it to feel bigger than it was, because the hook is so great,” said Tumay. “At first, the tune was shaky and I felt like more could be added to it, so I went in and added harmonies and stuff like that, definitely tried to make the hook build a little bit more. And after that, we started to shape the rest of the album off of where that came from—the reverb and all that came from that song, the more distant feeling.”
Tumay worked with 21 Savage again to mix all of his newest album Issa Album. It’s the same 21 Savage through a different lens; he noted on Twitter that he tried to make Issa “a different concept sonically than Savage Mode” in that “Savage Mode = Horror flick ISSA = Mob flick set in the 80s.” He said, in addition to 21 Savage’s rapping getting even better on this album, the album leans even harder into the “Ocean Drive” vibe than the rest of Savage Mode.
“I think I'd say there's a lot of emotional bangers on there,” said Tumay. “Like, you know that picture of Lil Duval, the meme where he's like, ‘I don't know why i'm crying in the club right now?’ It's that picture.”
Amileah Sutliff is a New York-based writer, editor and creative producer and an editor of the book The Best Record Stores in the United States.
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