Saba, a Chicago-born producer-emcee, got his first bit of shine at 21 years old. It was 2016: Chance the Rapper had released one of the most beloved mixtapes in the country, “Angels” was one of the hottest songs on the record, and Saba had rapped the “Angels” hook. He performed with Chance on Steven Colbert, but that wasn’t his greatest accomplishment of the year. That had to be the wonderful Bucket List Project, Saba’s first album, a funky rumination on purpose in life. The record is bracingly honest, thought-provoking fun, and it boasts the rarest thing in all of hip-hop: unskippable sketches.
It was during the recording of Bucket List Project that Saba’s closest cousin, Walter, was murdered in Chicago. Care for Me is the album Saba made in the wake of that tragedy, and it’s coated in a fine layer of grief. The album is haunting and haunted; Walter’s ghost seems to shimmer in and out of view, possessing a line, a word, and fading away. It culminates in “Prom / King”, a compound song with two tales of Walter: just before prom and just before death. The wrenching end is all the more powerful because the journey to get there is so much fun. It’s a virtuoso performance and one of the best hip-hop songs of the year.
Now Saba is the ripe old age of 23, with two excellent albums under his belt. His beatmaking and rhymes have both improved, and they were plenty good to start. His lyrics are honest in an unpretentious way that sometimes embarrasses him and makes you want to pause and ask a friend, “Did you hear that?” His productions sound like no one else’s, and his voice flexes up and down (now raspy, now smooth) to find the pocket of the beat. Perhaps the crossover success will come and perhaps it won’t, but artistically, Saba already deserves to be mentioned alongside rap’s heavyweights.
Saba spoke to Consequence of Sound about his new album, as well as his slam poetry roots, how touring has changed him, and unusual ways to keep songs sounding fresh.
On slam poetry and Young Chicago Authors
Photo by Evan Brown @actuallyondirt
It was an outlet. Being a rapper, I wanted to rap somewhere. That’s where we had our first shows, our first fans. So it seemed like what we were doing was working, and we were able to spread locally.
I feel like that’s really where I learned how to write, as opposed to just being a rapper. That’s where I learned what I wanted to say and what I wanted my story to be. A lot of it had to do with hearing poets present whatever they were presenting.
On how touring has changed him
Photo by Heather Kaplan
It’s beautiful being able to see the world. That’s one very important part of touring that people don’t take into consideration. They always think it’s dope, playing all these shows and living the dream, but you’re literally in a new place every day, and that’s the part that affects you as a person. It’s kind of crazy, but you really learn what you need. You know, you’re packing for a month, three months sometimes. You’re only communicating with a very small group of people; you lose communication with a lot of people. It’s living life in a way where whatever happens today happens. You’ve never been to the city, you’ve never been to the state, you’ve never been to a venue, and you don’t know what to expect. I think that’s one of the coolest ways to live life. You can do that without going on tour, but I think touring is one of the most extreme examples of that lifestyle.
On beginning Care For Me
When I was making Care for Me, my goal was to not take into consideration what people like. As artists, I feel like sometimes we try and cater towards a certain crowd, cater towards a certain sound, like, “People always like this … let’s do this.” But on Care for Me, we were just going to make whatever the fuck we liked and that’s going to be it. We’re not going to try and sugarcoat the message or make what people expect from us. We just wanted to make a 100% honest and original piece of music, and that’s what we did.
On whether he starts with words or sounds
I never start with just words. It’s always hard for me. The rhythms that I try to do are so specific to the beat that I always start with the beat. Every now and then I’ll have an idea for a song and try and build around that, but it’s very rare that I’ll have actual lyrics already.
On how he approaches performing lyrics
Photo by Evan Brown @actuallyondirt
I’m very keen on using your voice as an instrument. In the same way that the music should feel sonically fresh, so should the voice. Like, listening to certain songs that may not have a feature and approaching them in a way where it’s not the same thing for three minutes. I try to fit in with the music and where I think my voice would sound best, just experimenting. There’s no way to know unless you try. I may approach the same song a bunch of different ways until I find the one that fits the best. It’s not about sounding like “me.”
On the state of hip-hop
I’m super optimistic. I have to be (laughs). It’s like anything. There’s good, there’s bad. I think more important than any of that — just a personal preference — is that there’s opportunity. Whether you’re a fan of all the 16- and 17-year-olds doesn’t matter. The fact that they’re able to do that is crazy and really a blessing. You’re able to navigate through the music industry in certain ways now, where you can be 100% yourself. You can also be 100% not yourself. There’s a lot of beautiful things to being an artist in 2018 that people in the ’90s didn’t get the opportunity to do.
On pop music
Photo by Evan Brown @actuallyondirt
I don’t think anybody wants to be an underground no-hit no-nothing forever. What people want is the opportunity to make something honest that can then be played on the radio and in the clubs. My goal, more than focusing on the radio hits, is just to do something organic. If and when that does happen, that’s how it will happen.
Some people listen to it and they want to it to be explained; they want to be walked through the shit. They don’t want anything left up for interpretation. That’s one thing I was very heavy on in the album — some of the sounds, some of the tracks — leave it up to people to decide what it means to them. A lot of people listening to it don’t know me, and they haven’t met Walt. They have to put their own visuals on it, make it more about themselves than about me and my relationship with my cousin.
On compound songs
You’re listening to something and two minutes pass by. You can easily get bored. Sometimes you want to add a new element. Sometimes, instead of adding a new instrument or sound, you want to add a whole new song. Busy and Sirens, for instance, they were two different songs, but they were built off the same chord progression. There was a point where I was going to choose one for the album. We had a meeting of brains, and then we combined them into one song and connected them sonically. As far as the sequencing goes, we made those decisions more by sound and feeling than by concept. It’s an emotionally driven album, but we want it to feel right.