On 20th October the world collectively shrugged at Super Slimey, Future and Young Thug’s surprise collaborative mixtape. Two artists who had been through a quasi-beef in a fight for the Atlanta rap crown and subsequently reconciled this year on Thug’s album highlight Relationship, offered a tape that wasn’t so much bad as it was bland, indistinct in its sound in a way that should be worrying for two artists who have spent so long sounding like no one else. While they both have a history of releasing projects that they made in a couple of days or less, those works sounded like fun, low-key B-sides that they just wanted to share. Super Slimey sounded rushed in the worst way with both artists re-treading familiar ground and sounding at their most energised when rapping solo rather than when performing together. It was a failed experiment that showed sometimes combining two talented artists doesn’t always pay off.
But sometimes it pays off brilliantly. On Halloween night, 21 Savage and Offset, two artists probably better known for making memes than for rapping, released their own surprise collaborative mixtape, Without Warning. With Metro Boomin at the helm on production, the tape is a gory pulp fiction delight, deep diving into horror movie soundtracks and Friday 13th references. What emerges is a mindlessly entertaining record crackling with chemistry, everything we were hoping Super Slimey might be. It’s one of the surprise rap highlights of the year.
What makes Without Warning’s success even more surprising is that by most definitions, one half of the duo featured here can barely rap. Even in the era of narcoleptic mumble-rappers, 21 Savage stands out as a particularly weak artist of the current moment. The chorus of his most famous song is basically just him counting up to 8, and he can’t even stay on beat when he performs it live. He’s a blunt instrument, effective as an evocation of mood rather than for anything that he actually says, and no one knows how to use him as effectively as Metro Boomin. The Atlanta producer has taken charge of production on both his breakout tape Savage Mode and now Without Warning, and both times has been able to turn his weaknesses into strengths. Savage’s verses on Without Warning deal almost exclusively in negative space, never using ten words where three will do, leaving his words reverberating in the air. The tape is filled with some of his best work, hilarious dead-eyed boasts like, ‘Bitch I’m a mobster / Shrimp in my pasta’, or, ‘Got a hoodie man / I’m the Boogieman’. Lines like these are the perfect distillation of Savage’s appeal on this tape; the simplest rhyme delivered with a cartoonish menace, perfectly contributing to the Halloween aesthetic. It’s evidence of his technical limitations as much as it’s an artistic choice, but it still works brilliantly. 21 Savage’s career might never go beyond making casual threats over Metro Boomin’s production, and that’s fine. From the sounds of this year’s awkward Issa Album, it might be better for everyone involved if he stays exactly where he is.
If 21 Savage on Without Warning is rapping deconstructed to its sparsest, most pragmatic form, then Offset is his polar opposite, delighting in sound and filling up every available space with noise. He has tightly wound kinetic energy, ricocheting triplet rhymes and ad-libs through Metro Boomin’s cavernous horrorcore productions. There are a lot of rappers more technically gifted than Offset, but there aren’t many who sound better; who can use their voice as an instrument as well as him. His star as one third of Migos has been rising ever since he was released from prison in 2015; his opening verse in their inescapable hit Bad And Boujee spawned a thousand poorly constructed memes and upset the rankings in a group where Quavo had been the undisputed leader. Without Warning caps a stellar 2017 for him, and he’s on imperious form here, perfectly contrasting his hyperactive delivery with Savage’s laconic flow. As far as I know the two rappers have never appeared on a record together until now, but it’s the kind of combination that makes perfect sense as soon as you hear it.
Whose idea was it to combine them? The common link between these two rappers, and the not-so-secret ingredient to this tape’s success, has to be Metro Boomin. Like Offset, this has been a watershed year for the young producer; he’s been scoring more hits than ever, including one of the songs of the year with Future’s Mask Off, and has taken his rightful place as the best beatmaker working today. On Without Warning Metro Boomin has crafted a collection of songs that feel entirely of a piece thematically, delving into slasher flicks, Italian giallo films, and synth-heavy video game soundtracks for inspiration. Spread throughout the instrumentals are distant screams and sinister laughs, tongue-in-cheek flourishes that revel in pulpy Halloween imagery and perfectly conjure an atmosphere of schlocky fear - like an overblown horror movie you know is trash but can’t help but enjoy. There are also moments of surprising beauty; the delicate music box melody of Darth Vader, or the submarine synths of Mad Stalkers that sound like the soundtrack to a Metroid game. Ric Flair Drip, maybe the best track on the tape, sees Offset going solo over a beat that sounds like Bay Area hyphy deconstructed and rebuilt in Atlanta, further evidence of Metro Boomin’s prodigious talent at whatever sound he tries his hand at.
The musical creativity and cohesion that Metro Boomin’s production brings to Without Warning is exactly what Super Slimey is missing. Rather than two stars uncomfortably edging to outdo each other over a thrown-together assembly of beats, the tape feels like the work of three artists working in tandem, aware of their strengths and how their different styles might complement each other. Travis Scott and Quavo both feature but are pushed to the first two tracks of the tape, and the rest of Without Warning relies exclusively on the interplay between Savage and Offset. Their solo tracks segue into one another, they ad-lib over each other’s verses; they’ve created a genuine collaborative effort, greater than the sum of its parts. Don’t miss it.
Words: Nick Bedingfield