A city engulfed in flames, a maniacal villain on the loose, with the only chance for salvation missing in action. As this terrorizing force continues to wreak havoc, a figure emerges from the darkness, knowing the fate of the universe is in his hands. “You need me to save you, you do/ I am the only one who possibly can,” asserts a voice. Music swells, and a batmobile-esque car pulls out of a driveway, and somehow, we know that even on the advent of apocalypse, there remains a beacon of hope to look towards. It’s not a bird or a plane or even superman, and yet we sense that this figure is hope, the chance at happiness, a hero.
Or, at least, that’s what Houston producer Metro Boomin wants to convey through his outstanding short film previewing his latest album. A dramatic, intense way to introduce a project? Yes. However, it frames the producing genius and his latest project as what they are–the exploits of a being bigger than the game itself. “HEROES & VILLAINS” is the producer’s eighth studio release, but the thematic successor to his 2018 work, “NOT ALL HEROES WEAR CAPES.” Like Metro Boomin’s latest, it features collaborations with a “who’s who” of the game’s biggest names, with returning favorites like Gunna, Young Thug and Travis Scott and new arrivals such as Don Tolliver and Mustafa. In the lead up to the release of “HEROES & VILLAINS”, Metro Boomin introduced each of these figures on his Instagram with their very own, personalized comic book cover. Whether it be larger-than-life 21 Savage’s looming villainous presence over a city or the recently deceased Takeoff, effervescent as ever on his iconic rocket in space, the intricate detail and care put into each of these designs were only amplified by the aforementioned short film teaser depicting the dire, hopeless state crying out for a hero. Whether it’s saving the city, or the rap game, fans of the Houston native were anticipating something truly extraordinary.
In the short film, as we see Metro Boomin leaving for his confrontation with evil, and Morgan Freeman declares, “If Young Metro don’t trust, motherf*cker you better run,” we hear the sound of a sample loop and track so grand, so booming, it could only signify the entrance of the most heroic order. Enter Future, whose assertive, confident delivery of truly diabolical lines alert us that the track isn’t signifying good’s triumph—it’s a villain’s theme. Deceptively titled “Superhero,” the Atlantan brags about amassing possessions at others’ expense, disrespecting his opponents and disregarding the opinions of those not on his side. “Superhero” is a track about acknowledging the duality of man and embracing one’s dark side, and Metro Boomin’s legion of doom calls back this villainous theme throughout the project. 21 Savage and Young Nudy join forces on “Umbrella,” a collective calling out of their rivals, sharing an equally minimal level of sympathy for their foils. Riding a piano beat oozing with grime, trudging through a city of chaos, the pair recount its evil exploits. On “Metro Spider,” Young Thug declares, “Bigger than the president, my life a scandal,” referencing his braggadocio unbound and the unwanted attention his lavish lifestyle can’t help but attract.
However, “HEROES & VILLAINS” is not without its embracing of far more sympathetic perspectives. On the nostalgic ballad “Creepin,” a cover of R&B singer Mario Winans’ 2004 “I Don’t Wanna Know,” the Weeknd croons, “I don’t wanna know/ If you’re playing me, keep it on the low/ ‘Cause my heart can’t take it anymore,” allowing us to empathize with a figure attempting to preserve their idealized image of someone, despite evidence to the contrary. In a contradiction befitting an album highlighting two opposing ideals, on “Feel the Fiyaaaah,” A$AP Rocky and Takeoff take turns questioning the greed of humanity, with religious references abound. “Only got two seats/ Why we need a new coupe/ Only got two feet/ why need new shoes,” the New Yorker questions, going on to assert the true priorities in life and music. “That’s the most important part/ Started out we was only makin’ art.” Behind all of the material possessions and experiences funded through rap success lies a genuine desire to make something special, a shared piece of work that people from around the world could listen and understand.
While A$AP and Takeoff both contribute meaningfully to this reflection on music and its consequences for the artist, unfortunately not every track shares a parallel cohesion between voices. Chris Brown’s singing at the end of “Superhero” feels entirely disjointed and unnecessary (as his additions frequently are). 21 Savage’s monotone flow does not fit the 80’s pop style that “Creepin” is attempting to conjure. Future and Travis are underwhelming in one of the album’s later tracks, “Lock on Me,” which features an uncharacteristic, tried guitar loop from Metro Boomin and a dearth of chemistry between the two talented emcees.
With that being said, Scott remains one of the absolute brightest points of this album, integral to many of the project’s best songs. On the ethereal “Raindrops,” Scott’s languid, smooth hook of “Drop top in rain/ This might feel insane” does truly feel so addictive, it’s craze-inducing. On the spacey, delicate “Trance,” Scott reunites with familiar friend Young Thug as the pair effortlessly floats over Metro Boomin’s decisively airy beat. Tailor-made to fit the criminally complementary flows of the duo, “Trance” is demonstrative of the producer’s unparalleled ability to provide beats that perfectly suit its rappers. On the darker “Niagara Falls,” Scott and 21 Savage spit over a somber piano riff and accompanying strings about confronting uncomfortable truths. Scott says, explicitly, “Gotta keep my distance, they surrounding me/ Imma need an extra foot or two,” with Freeman returning to the picture to state, “Villains do not perceive themselves as wrong.”
Further comparing the similarities between the paths of both heroes and villains, this track feels like an acknowledgement that the two personas, while often portrayed in opposition, sometimes share many similarities that we may not want to accept. Sometimes, someone’s fate is determined by factors entirely out of their control, leaving the blame and punishment far more difficult to assign. When someone commits a wrongdoing—hurting someone, making them cry (tears akin to “Niagara Falls”)—is this action a product of a person, or the symptom of a system that gave them little hope of heroism?
“HEROES & VILLAINS” is an album with as many layers and points of views as the graphic novels from which it takes inspiration. Embracing not only the arrogance of the villain, but also the sympathy of the hero, calling out enemies while acknowledging the pitiable circumstances that make adversaries, the producer’s latest project is far deeper and more thoughtful than the average trap album. Considering such questions, all while flawlessly assembling 13 of the rap world’s biggest superstars, deserves a tremendous amount of praise. With great power comes great responsibility, after all, and Metro Boomin certainly takes this duty seriously.