Early in 2018, as he neared the completion of a new album, the Chicago rapper Saba took a moment to review his work-in-progress. “I was listening with one of the producers and he actually pointed it out: ‘Damn dude, all of these songs are about Walt,'” Saba, 24, remembers. “I didn’t even realize.”
The memory of John Walt – Saba’s cousin, a fellow rapper, who was stabbed to death in Chicago in February 2017 – is all over Care for Me, the lyrically harrowing, instrumentally plush album that Saba released in April. “So many people around me and in Chicago are experiencing so many things I described on the album,” he says. “[But] it’s not shit me and my friends even talk about. As were making it, we opened up conversations – the engineer, the producer, everybody’s talking about all of this shit we never talk about.”
Saba, whose favorite adjective is “hella,” is sitting in a tidy, gleaming corner conference room in the New York offices of UTA, which handles his touring. He just finished a six-week run in support of Care for Me: “We played different markets this time,” he says, including “places you wouldn’t even know you had fans unless you go, like Omaha, Nebraska, and Kansas.” But after just a couple days back in Chicago, he flew east to perform a show at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. With college shows, he says, “You never really know what you’re gonna walk into. You never know how drunk they’re gonna be.”
Two years ago, Saba broke through with his guest appearance on Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book single “Angels,” followed by his own studio debut, Bucket List Project – an album flecked with aspirational messages and combustible fan-favorites like “Westside Bound 3.” At a time when rap radio and premier streaming service playlists favor brute-force beats and repetitious lyrical delivery, Bucket List Project‘s detailed first-person narratives marked Saba as an outlier. His most affecting tracks celebrate nuance; they often manage to be joyful and tragic, triumphant and anxiety-inducing, all at once.
Saba’s writerly style is so compelling that Jamila Woods, a fellow Chicago musician and collaborator, frequently teaches his songs in a poetry class she leads for teens. “I’ve taught ‘Church / Liquor Store’ – it’s a great portrait of everything you see in transit from your house to where you work,” she says. “A lot of his songs are really teachable. I love his flow, the way he manipulates syllables and the way words are said to fit bars and play with language.”
“Everyone now seems like they just want to be cool, they want hella followers on Instagram, they want attention,” adds Cam Obi, who has produced for Saba, Chance the Rapper and SZA. “But they don’t want to be sincere, they don’t want to be themselves, and the dead giveaway for that is the overuse of clichés. What I like about Saba is he stays away from cliché.”
This skill is more evident than ever on Care For Me, which Saba started working on in December of 2017. Songs like “Fighter” are stealthy pleasures – the track is initially about neighborhood brawls the rapper got into as a child, a victory followed by a humiliating defeat. But without warning, Saba suddenly pivots into discussing a quarrel with his grandfather, who advised him not to pursue hip-hop, and then an argument with his girlfriend, who is frustrated by his failure to listen, and then, finally, to his depression after Walt’s death, which is so debilitating that he raps, “I’m fightin’ myself to get out of bed.”
He achieves a similar feat with “Prom / King,” Care For Me‘s penultimate track. Here Saba recounts a story of being set up a blind prom date by Walt, who saves him from the potential embarrassment of public loneliness. The blind date is a success – Saba gives her “the croissant or corsage or whatever the fuck my mom handed me” – and the pair head to an afterparty. The festive mood suddenly turns dangerous when Saba’s date’s brother arrives and threatens to stab him.
The listener is already feeling emotional whiplash, but the song is not even half finished. Its second half is entirely about Saba’s relationship with Walt. It ends when Saba gets a call from his cousin’s mother the day of the murder. Woods calls “Prom / King” “one of the best narrative rap songs I’ve ever heard in my life.”
“Originally ‘Prom / King’ was supposed to be the last song on the album,” Saba explains. “But I listened all the way through, and on ‘Prom / King,’ I was like, holy fuck, this is the most depressing thing ever. I didn’t want to leave everybody with that feeling – even though, I think, that is what everyone around feels like.”
So he tacked on “Heaven All Around Me,” a gently rapped number with tender instrumentation and handsome harmonies. “It’s still an uneasy ending to an album,” Saba says. “But at the very least, it’s a glimpse of hope.”