For many of us outside Chicago, the first piece of Chicago rap we heard was Resurrection, a 1994 album from a 22-year-old South Side rapper named Common Sense. Common was a fun voice — lively, showily clever, capable of being vulnerable and funny and tough all at once. But the thing about Resurrection that really struck me the first time I heard it wasn’t Common himself. It was how pretty the whole album was. Producer No I.D., himself a neophyte at the time, was sampling tinkly jazz and old soul music, and he was bringing out the welcoming warmth of Common’s voice by leaving room for him to find melody, to play around with the open space in those beats. Right now, Chicago is in the midst of a ridiculous rap-music renaissance, with a whole scene of clever, emotionally sharp kids who grew up in the same after-school open-mic scene. Just this year, Chance The Rapper, Noname, Joey Purp, Towkio, Vic Mensa and the scene-adjacent singer Jamila Woods have all put out records worth hearing, and I’m probably still missing a few. But other than Chance and Woods, none of them have chased beauty the way the 22-year-old West Side rapper Saba does on his new Bucket List Project.
Saba is young, but he’s already been rapping for years, and he’s already got a handful of mixtapes to his credit. He’s been working with Chance since Acid Rap, and these days, he’s probably best known as the guy who did the hook on Chance’s single “Angels.” Saba comes from a musical family: his father a neo-soul producer; his grandparents in funk bands; his older brother, Joseph Chilliams, a rapper who’s in his Pivot Gang crew. (Chilliams has a great Stone Cold Steve Austin-related punchline in his verse on the Bucket List Project track “Westside Bound 3.”) Saba is the type of rapper who can talk about the desperation of growing up in a poor, violent neighborhood, and who can do it without even trying to sound tough. And he’s also a producer, one who produced or co-produced the lion’s share of the tracks on Bucket List Project. That matters because it means the album is just a radically pretty piece of work, one as unapologetic in its pursuit of pure beauty as Resurrection was decades ago.
Saba knows what he’s doing. His aesthetic: dazed Fender Rhodes, beats landing just behind where they’re supposed to, foggily diffuse horn samples. It’s a sound just as in love with jazz and soul as what No I.D. brought to Resurrection, but it’s not a ’90s throwback sound. Saba draws as much from the rap of right now, with its deeply stoned synth-gurgles and its busy hi-hats, as he does from the ancestral sounds of his own city. As a vocalist, he’s a sort of melodic floater, switching between rapping and singing with the sort of ease that makes them sound like they’re more or less the same thing. Bucket List Project deals with heavy ideas, but it also works as pure bliss-out music, music for sitting back and breathing deeply on a sunny afternoon. When Common’s contemporary Twista shows up on “GPS,” rapping in that dizzily fast pretzel-flow, he sounds right at home; with this album, Saba’s carved out a space for just that sort of casual virtuosity.
But as comfortable as this music is, much of its is made from a place of profound discomfort. Saba raps from the perspective of the archetypal nerdy kid who never feels entirely welcome in the tough neighborhood where he grew up: “I can’t relate to half of my relatives / my genetics is felony, buying low and reselling it.” On “American Hypnosis,” a track with a hook built from a Langston Hughes quote, Saba raps movingly about feeling disconnected from his own family and from the suburban private school where he felt just as alien as he did in his neighborhood: “On a scholarship, and I hated that / Left the hood, somehow I made it back.” And he’s also great at discussing the simple mechanics of being broke, the specific day-to-day humiliations of it: “Tryna finesse Uber with a new email.” And while he sounds dizzily happy about all the places that his life as a rapper has taken him, his most liberating boasts are the most direct ones: “Dropped out, I don’t need a loan / That same school booking me a show.”
The whole album is built around quick clips of various local luminaries stopping by to say what they want to do before they die. There are some boldfaced names in there; Chance and Lupe Fiasco are both in there, as is Saba’s father, who moved away when Saba was young and who now speaks about his son with a fond, powerful pride. Some of the ideas are stupid; one guy wants to fuck Kylie Jenner, and another wants to fuck 10 women at the same time. But there’s still something powerful in hearing this collection of talented young people taking stock of their own mortality, considering what they want to squeeze in while they still have time. And it’s sad that the specter of death should, by necessity, hang over an album made with such sweeping insight and optimism, from a kid as talented as Saba. If Bucket List Project is any indication, he has so much more to say. He’ll only get better from here.
The self-released Bucket List Project is out now. Stream it below.
Other albums of note out this week:
• Hope Sandoval & The Warm Inventions’ rapturously lovely and dazed Until The Hunter.
• Lambchop’s adventurous, Auto-Tune-drenched FLOTUS.
• My Morning Jacket frontman Jim James’ solo effort Eternally Even.
• Shirley Collins’ bucolic folk return Lodestar.
• Alicia Keys’ rhythmically sharp, emotionally empathetic comeback Here.
• Common’s thoughtful, politically aware Black America Again.
• Pure Moods’ languid, ramshackle self-titled debut.
• American Wrestlers’ grandly anthemic Goodbye Terrible Youth.
• Jess Williamson’s twangy, insightful Heart Song.
• Hierophant’s hybrid grindcore attack Mass Grave.
• Surface To Air Missive’s bouncy, retro A V.
• PALACE’s layered, emotive debut So Long Forever.
• The massive #savefabric benefit compilation.
• The Chainsmokers’ Collage EP.
• Gobbinjr’s vom night EP.
• Sporting Life’s Slam Dunk Vol. III EP.
• Dante Decaro’s Kill Your Boyfriend EP.
• Very Fresh’s Hey, It’s Me! EP.
• Ex Reyes’ Do Something EP.