top of page
  • Writer's pictureShenead Poroosotum

The Cultural Significance of 21 Savage's 'Savage Mode II' Album Cover

In the light of 21 Savage releasing his highly anticipated Metro Boomin-collaborative-album Savage Mode II, It wasn't just about the Gangsta Rap beats (and the line addressing the memes about him being born in Plaistow, East London: "N**** keep talkin' that U.K. shit like I don't got AKs (21) / Like, 'cause I was born overseas, these motherfuckers ain't gon' spray-spray" on 'My Dawg') instead, it was the nod to Southern Gangsta Rap album artwork that was popular during the mid-80s and 90s that have caught people's attention.

With Gangsta Rap, a sub-genre of Hip Hop music, it introduced an anecdotal way of rappers to talk about their neighbourhood and how they live. Initially called 'reality rap', this type of rap music emerged onto the scene in the late 80s as an extremely distinct but highly controversial genre that was supposed to assert the subculture of the typical American and predominantly black street gangs, such as the Bloods and Crips for example and street hustlers. The most notable pioneers include artists such as Ice-T, N.W.A and Snoop Dogg which lead the genre to becoming a more mainstream type of genre as they regularly would voice their opinions and dealings with criminality and materialism but would also be political to stand against social oppression, racism and police brutality. An example of this would be the infamous 'Fuck Tha Police' track by N.W.A, which the video was subsequently banned by MTV and on radio from being aired but displays a powerful and political stance that is still relevant today, after its initial release in 1988.

Adorned with typical themes that you would have seen on a rap album cover 25 years ago, it features a rolling dice, Lamborghinis tucked in each corner, a big Malibu style mansion in the back and a crystal embellished knife with bullet holes dripping with blood. This decision was not only a tricky move for the younger fans who have been expressing their dislike but was a wonderful blast from the past for others. This artwork not only shows how we have progressed in graphic design but it created a significant moment in art history within the music scene by showing an array of images relating to success such as the cars, glittering jewellery, women and money clips. But how did this trend come together in the first place?

The artwork for Savage Mode II was said to have brought its creators Pen & Pixel, based in Houston, out of retirement to design this throwback cover, since they were notoriously known to have produced artwork for artists such as Trinity Garden Cartel, B.G and Juvenile. The creators used to create these covers back in the 90s and early 2000s by sketching what the artist had envisioned, scanned into a computer and then collecting all these small stock images such as cars, champagne bottles, skulls and diamonds to create gaudy and outrageous covers that oozed with luxury. Pen & Pixel was the design house firm for record labels such as No Limit Records, Cash Money Records and Suave House Records.

Having said to have coined the term 'bling bling'. Pen & Pixel have said once in an interview that they first thought of the term during the creation of the Chopper City In The Ghetto album cover where they were asked to "sparkle it up, make it bling," like the sparkling star blasts that they would put over diamonds on the artworks, however Mannie Fresh, an early Cash Money Records producer remembers it being first used by Lil Wayne in a track. They expressed to The Fader: " Wayne had already used the word “bling” in a song prior to that but the word had already stuck to me. I don’t know exactly which song, but I know his line was, “Tell me what kinda n****/ Got diamonds that’ll bling, bling ya.” That was like, damn, that bling word could be something."

During the course of the decade, the designs slowly started to transition from portraying themes of violence on the cover to instead showing off stacks of cash, Bentleys and women in bikinis as stores in America expressed that if these covers had pictures of weapons on them, they wouldn't sell them. So, Pen & Pixel made the conscious decision to introduce a more laid-back approach with the artists covers which they seemed to take a liking too more. Unfortunately, the true reality of that lifestyle, behind the money and the cars, became more evident as Pen & Pixel lost clients due to gang violence. Also after some time, displaying somewhat violent imagery on the covers was noticed by local gangs who challenged their ideas to try and display who could look more dangerous, sparking a more threatening discourse between rival gangs. With that decision and making these artists' records more accessible, it made more sense to show how successful and rich these rappers looked rather the violence they and their neighbourhood endured.

Although Pen & Pixel have come out of retirement for the new 21 Savage album cover, who knows if they'll get back onto the music scene again producing artworks for our favourite rappers. I know I would love to see it!

Stream Savage Mode II right here!


bottom of page