Chicago is my favorite city in the United States. I recognize that I base that opinion off almost nothing. I have reasons for this preference, of course — the wide streets and beautiful architecture, the improbably cozy parks tucked into the towering cityscape — but they don’t amount to a holistic picture in which to ascertain authority in this assessment. Despite having now amassed over multiple trips a solid collection of wonderful days spent in the metropolis, I don’t really know Chicago. I just know what I like in Chicago.
Conversely, almost everything I love about the city is absent from the music I listen to from its representatives. Sure, Wilco featured Marina City on the cover of their most famous album, but the rappers — mine and most peoples’ my age designated cultural ambassadors of the Chi — do not mention what I’ve experienced when they depict their hometown. You never hear lyrical nods to Frank Lloyd Wright or deep dish; no MC is shouting out Oz Park or the Art Institute.
I have to confront my privilege to know a place the way I do Chicago; access to Millennium Park hotels in and of itself conjures an implicit border around the rest of the city. When I visit Hyde Park or the University of Chicago, an academic powerhouse that also features one of the largest private security forces in the country, I am not the one being policed, but rather being “protected” from the surrounding victims of systemic poverty the university has built itself within. This is part and parcel with tourism in the US: to consciously stop at scratching the surface as to not dig into the graphic underbelly. I know where not to go when I explore Chicago. I am unsure how to even get there.
Yet I hear transmissions often from these locales. There’s plenty of music coming out of Chicago that documents without flinching its economic disparities and gang violence, such as from hard-hitting street rappers like G Herbo and Lil Durk. But the recent crop of the region’s hip-hop upstarts to have amassed considerable recognition have used their platform to additionally showcase the elements of beauty alongside the danger that encompasses the background of their lives. They are depicting their side of the city, the one I’ve never truly seen, while shifting the public perception around its status as a war-torn “Chi-raq.” From Noname to Kweku Collins to Chance The Rapper, Chicago hip-hop artists want you to know what makes this city beautiful isn’t just contained within downtown, but adjacent to everything that makes the rest of the neighborhoods so feared by outsiders.
Jamila Woods’ 2016 breakthrough “LSD,” an ode to Chicago’s scenery-laden freeway Lake Shore Drive, was a conscious attempt by the artist to ensure “there’s not just one story told about our city,” closing off with the emblematic lines: “I’m everything you made me/ Even when you break me down/ The water always saves me.” Chance, who features on “LSD,” is acutely aware of Chicago’s tribulations, but on record he plays the role of an eager ambassador for the city’s future, popping off over buoyant soul beats: “I got my city doing front flips/ When every father, mayor, rapper jump ship/ I guess that’s why they call it where I stay/ Clean up the streets, so my daughter can have somewhere to play.”
Tahj Malik Chandler, a Chance affiliate who raps under the moniker Saba, sang on that song’s jubilant chorus: “I got angels all around me they keep me surrounded.” He’s singing a hymn to keep positive in a city of fallen siblings. It’s a sentiment that reads similar to the hook of one of Saba’s solo singles from this year, where he intones, “There’s heaven all around me.” However, given context, the two lines convey entirely different perspectives, marking a great internal distance Saba’s traveled since.
Saba’s cousin and close friend Walter Long was stabbed to death early last year. That tragedy clouds every corner of the rapper’s latest full-length CARE FOR ME, the best hip-hop album to come out of Chicago’s thriving community of open mic-minded youth since Acid Rap. It’s also that scene’s first meditation on loss that refuses to play as anything but. Saba can’t moor himself from the violence that’s wrecked his family and relationships, and his depiction of Chicago is one almost entirely of bruised motivations and dilapidated matter.
The timbre of CARE FOR ME’s rattled minor-keys conjures an urgent threat of mortality and a retaliation against it. The album was composed entirely by Saba alongside the producer/multi-instrumentalist pair of DaedaePivot and Daoud. Together the trio fold spiraling keys, downcast upright bass, and digitized rumbles into a suite of grey-tinted watercolors, keeping the pace and atmosphere of Kendrick’s good kid, m.A.A.d city centerpiece “Sing About Me, I’m Dying Of Thirst” for an entire album. It’s beautiful music, somber but simmering — containing a virtuosic vivacity that feels both improvisational and rigorously contained.
But it’s even more compelling storytelling. Saba is illustrative without being didactic, writing with an immaculate penmanship but as through a leaky instrument, ink stains splattered around sharp-edged script. Saba’s always been the most spiritually philosophic of his class of Chicago rap, but on the previous Bucket List Project he put that higher-minded approach to a guest-heavy collection of summer day backpack rap. On CARE FOR ME, he’s instead detailing in isolation song after song the constant desire to escape an existence that follows you like a shadow no matter where you go.
Saba’s performing these songs about his fears and frustrations over aqueous jazz-hop, the kind of music that mimics the unsettled headspace of its author. But rap shows are typically focused on giving their fans out of body experiences fueled by blunt adrenaline, notorious for stripping the subject matter from the sounds to make party music out of eulogies. However, Saba’s set at Outside Lands Sunday afternoon was a demonstration in how those two sides can be portrayed as not paradoxical, but necessary counterbalances.
The rapper performed a great deal of CARE FOR ME to a young audience encompassed in a golden hour fog, accompanied by the album’s production duo and an additional DJ. The foursome translated the record’s heady neurosis into bass-boosted bops, leaning on Saba’s melodic sensibilities and naturally amiable vigor to bring the crowd into his world without dropping them into the depths. He opened the set with a run of singles from CARE FOR ME, and each communicated their original thematic content while overtaking their insularity with a brightened exterior. Where it could be easy to mistake Saba’s self-reflection as martyrdom on record, on stage these songs suggest more clearly their role as mantras recorded as reminders by a survivor.
Among those, he fit towards the end of the setlist the arid banger “LIFE,” the refrain of which compresses in just a couple of lines an entire lifetime of loss integral in contextualizing the stories that unfold throughout CARE FOR ME. Like a majority of the bars on the album, it’s a comprehensive narrative acting as just another brick Saba builds on top of. By the time you reach the end of the forty minute album, you feel like you know Saba more than most characters fleshed out across entire multi-book literary series.
You know of his isolation from friends following a life on the road in the online age, his youth spent trying to earn clout in physical altercations, the lessons he received from past relationships in his understanding of romance. You hear across seven and a half minutes of breathless narrative Saba’s prom experience, a story that begins from a youthful urgency to finally have sex and goes on to become the start of a friendship and creative partnership with Walter that is described until its final moments. It’s a gutting tale, but is also filled with moments of humor and heart, and told with such an eye for detail that you walk out of it having felt like you just lived through years of Saba’s life.
The album also gives a sense of the community Saba’s from. “We talk like we’re from the South/ Our parents’ parents from the South/ And if I make a million dollars, I’m going to vacation in the South,” he muses on “SMILE,” casually unspooling a couplet that encapsulates an entire contentious lineage of black existence in America and its contemporary descendants relationship to that history. He raps of parental and grandparental expectations broken by disappointment in his behavior, denoting a familial influence that finds its way into every reflection Saba has of his past, and the digital structures that have warped an entire generation’s sense of what constitutes success and happiness.
Performed live, however, you receive too with these songs Saba’s eager, welcoming grin, which in the face of the traumatic subject matter he’s expositing allow your spirits to remain centered. The kids at Outside Lands chose to follow along to Saba’s tales of existential grief as opposed to seeing Portugal. The Man sing about being rebels “just for kicks” some fields length away. Saba, for his part, rewarded them with a disposition that encouraged listeners to see his perspective without needing to feel his hardships. And when he buckled back to the sunnier moments from his past releases, like the xylophone-banger “Stoney” or the smooth “Photosynthesis,” it felt like an earned payoff, a moment of levity to remind us of the value in reality after songs like “CALLIGRAPHY” or “GREY” offered reasons for escapism.
As I reflect on the Bay Area’s own underclass of hip-hop ethnographers poised to affirm their identities to the rest of the country, I watch Saba selling his story to a mass who will always have to take his word for it. But I also see him making his experience tangible for the rest of us through sheer force of songwriting. There is no disconnect between what fans want from him and what he’s offering, because at the core of his music is a vast bridge of empathy. “Y’all fuck with Chicago out here?” he asked before his last few distinctly regional songs, including a quick rendition of “Angels.” Regardless of any of our responses, Saba was intent on making sure we walked out of the show at least understanding of his point of view. He carries no reactionary agenda to anyone’s preconceived impressions of Chicago, just a desire to make visible his narrative among them.