Saba’s Got Everything He Could Ever Need

C.T. Robert

Saba’s Got Everything He Could Ever Need

C.T. Robert

The Chicago rapper on his remarkable new album Few Good Things, the community that birthed it, and going out of his way not to repeat 2018's acclaimed Care For Me

“I just might share my next one with Keef.” That was Chance The Rapper back on his star-making Coloring Book cut “Angels,” speaking to the rap ideologues who saw the genre divided into two camps. Before he pivoted fully into his sanctimonious wife guy schtick, Chance was making vibrant gospel music about responsible young fatherhood and an internal directive to take care of his city. That values-led approach to rap led many to position him in contrast to the combustible gutter talk of Chief Keef, the other blog-proclaimed torchbearer of Chicago hip-hop. Chance understood the dichotomy was bullshit, and he wanted to make it clear he didn’t think of himself in opposition to that world.

The point landed, yet we never got that Chance/Keef joint. But with “Survivor’s Guilt,” the latest single from Saba’s new album Few Good Things, we now have the closest thing. Saba, the other voice on “Angels,” is part of the same generation of precocious open-mic stars from Chicago — including Noname, Vic Mensa, and Mick Jenkins, among others — that coveted major attention in Chance’s wake. His music, while moving towards a more insular grayscale than the exuberant PBS pop of Chance’s catalog, still shares much of its DNA with the sound Acid Rap popularized. So hearing Saba over a percussive drill beat alongside G Herbo, a Keef disciple, finally bridges the styles Chance threatened to do long ago. The result is so good I’m hoping some A&R is Parent Trap-ing Noname and Lil Durk into the same studio right now.

Saba and G Herbo have known one another since 2015, back when the latter still went by Lil Herb and before the former had released his breakthrough Bucket List Project. Their respective subgenres, while culturally pitted against one another, had always been in communication as each matured. “What makes it different is the perspective more than the music and the lyrics,” Saba tells me during a recent video call. He sees their approaches as two sides of the same coin, one focused on illustrating the lived experience of local crime and economic trauma, the other on reacting to its effects. “It’s important to represent both because that’s what most of us are from,” Saba says. “It is this, but it’s also that. It’s fucked up, but it’s beautiful.”

Like so much of the 27-year-old rapper’s previous work telling humble coming-of-age stories against the backdrop of the city’s perpetual violence, “Survivor’s Guilt” is an attempt to share both sides at once. The rest of Few Good Things documents a nonlinear journey from Saba receiving provision to becoming the primary provider of his extended family, interwoven with tales of close calls on the street, the unfulfilled promises of success, and the phantom pain of poverty that never quite dissipates. But throughout the album Saba also makes space for moments of levity, of the joys of building community and feeling content with what you have before you understood how much more you were really owed.

Saba’s previous album Care For Me was written under a cloud of grief after his cousin and close collaborator John Walt was killed in 2017. Accordingly, the record maintained a cohesive and consistently morose tone, righteous anger collapsing into stately dejection and rising back again. In contrast, Few Good Things is all over the place, alternating between overlapping moods of jubilance and apprehension and filled with sonic experiments that, like “Survivor’s Guilt,” cast Saba in a new light. The intent was to defy fan expectations: “Something we kept saying to ourselves was ‘anti-Care For Me‘,” Saba says. “Like, every song on that one had an outro? All right, well let’s do hard cuts on this one. Let’s just do everything different than how we did it.”

That deliberate resistance to retracing his steps was essential to the realization of Few Good Things. “It was a way to gamify creation. It’s so much easier to stay inspired when it’s fun,” Saba explains. “Had I put out an album that sounds exactly like Care For Me, some people would be very happy with that, but I don’t get to be happy with that. As honest to that record as I was, that’s only one part of me.” The varied temperament of the new album reflects the wider range of Saba’s musical interests: “I wanted to create this album as a fan, just thinking about what I like to listen to.”

Many of Few Good Things‘ most distinct and rewarding cuts are those that breach entirely new territory for the rapper. While the composition of the LP still took place alongside his core creative braintrust of Daoud and daedaePIVOT, the trio pushed themselves to write songs that broke out of the Care For Me mold. Immaculate singles that skewed too close to that album’s mellow mid-tempo thump, like 2020’s “Mrs. Whoever” and last year’s “Ziplock“, were released as one-offs, leaving for the album only the most distinct outliers from their jam sessions. Those that made the cut run the gamut from the razor-edged shit-talker “Stop That” to the indie rock flicker of “2012”, a collab with the dreampop musician Day Wave.

Most striking is lead single “Fearmonger,” a plucky funk strut featuring an elastic Saba vocal that splits the difference between “King Kunta” and “Redbone.” That song’s unique rhythm was a happy accident, the result of Saba hearing the riff Daoud and daedae were playing with a lag over Zoom. Fascinated by the direction the song was taking, they kept pushing it further out from shore. “In the last few years I’ve just gotten so comfortable and confident in what we do to where I don’t doubt it,” Saba notes. “So when we start a record it’s like, ‘This is cool. This is new. I didn’t make this song yet.’ It doesn’t scare me, but it excites me, you know?”

“I think a lot of these records just couldn’t exist for me when I was working on Care For Me,” he continues. “I don’t think I had the knowledge, the faith in myself, the belief in the team. I didn’t have what I have now.”

As much as Saba has grown in his years of accruing greater success and acclaim, everything in his career always comes back to Chicago. In a short film that accompanies the album and was released earlier this week, Saba and director C.T. Robert paint a moving portrait of daily life on the West Side, dedicated to “those who came before and never got to see it through.” Where peers like Vic Mensa and Chance The Rapper leveraged celebrity opportunities and associations with Kanye West to a rapid but unsteady ascent, Saba has remained fiercely local and loyal to his day ones, the Pivot Gang crew. Beyond Daoud and daedae, that ecosystem contains rappers Frsh Waters, MFnMelo, and Saba’s brother Joseph Chilliams, as well as late members Walt and Squeak, the deft producer who tragically fell victim to gun violence last year.

As the rest of Saba’s graduating class have branched out in their own directions — Noname heads a social justice book club, Joey Purp is making rap that pays tribute to Chicago’s historic house scene — Pivot Gang have preserved something of the collective’s initial promise of liberation-minded pop poetry. Their debut full-length showcase was 2019’s You Can’t Sit With Us, essentially one seamless cypher after another that made for among the most purely fun rap workouts of the last several years. They return as a full unit on the Few Good Things track “Soldier,” a self-reflective posse cut that will hopefully draw wider attention to the rest of the squad’s work, such as MFnMelo’s team-up with Squeak En Route and Joseph Chilliams’ upcoming LP.

Even with Saba’s considerable popularity relative to the rest of his crew, he never felt the pressure to jump outside of his homegrown community. “A lot of the people that are close to me have been close for over 10 years,” he says. “I was maybe a freshman in high school with the same group of friends that I have now.” Saba does open up Few Good Things to some outside voices, notably R&B up-and-comers Mereba and Fousheé and revered rap veterans Krayzie Bone and Black Thought. But the album is ultimately a cohesive product of the family business, with additional appearances from familiar satellite spirits like Smino, Benjamin Earl Turner, and Eryn Allen Kane.

The prominent role of Saba’s circle as he enters his next chapter reflects the driving theme of the album as a whole. “If I had to think of my connection to the title, it would just be this arrival back to where you started, but with a different perspective,” Saba says. “It’s about reminding yourself that sometimes you wished for something your whole life. Then when you have it, you forget that you wished for that thing your whole life.”

As he gets older, he has come to look back on his roots with a particular reverence. “When I think about what was going on in Chicago in 2011 through 2016, it’s special,” Saba beams. “This is not me trying to toot my own horn, but I think it has the essence of Renaissance, in a way that will still be fruitful years and years from now.” Saba has persisted as something of the glue for members of that creative moment, with frequent guest spots on others’ albums in addition to teasing a tape as Ghetto Sage with Noname and Smino (he promises the group’s long-awaited full length will come out “anytime between now and the next 10 years”).

He is keen on further preserving the potency of that legacy heading into the future. “One of my main focuses now has been trying to connect with everybody in Chicago and rekindle that energy, that community, and reintroduce it,” he shares. “We all older now, and I feel like we’re all better than we were then, so it only makes sense for us to reconnect and see what happens.”

Having been through the journey from uncertain origins to a stable artistic career, Saba wishes to pay it forward within the community that helped shepherd him. “I was able to see the work Keef did trickle down to me. I was able to see what Chance did affect me,” Saba says. “I want to see everybody from Chicago do great things, to do bigger and better things than the next person. It’s still a tight-knit community, but I think it has a unique perspective that needs to be elevated.”

To that end, Saba has come to take newer voices from the city under his wing, and co-founded the John Walt Foundation to invest resources in empowering young artists. Last year, he also penned an essay for Complex that mapped out his path to financial independence as a resource for those navigating the same industry choices and potential pitfalls. (He revisits the thesis of the essay in “Stop That”; see: “We talking ‘bout generational wealth”). The throughline across the wisdom he seeks to impart is the need to invest first in yourself, a lesson he learned almost by accident.

“We were independent originally because nobody was trying to sign us,” Saba laughs. “I would have signed anything you put in front of my face, but nobody was interested.” Rather than continue to covet outsider attention, his team decided to grow their own fanbase. “Then it became a thing of us making money, putting money back into the business, and realizing, ‘Oh, well I know what I get independently. So why would I give that away?'” he says. Or as he makes the point more succinctly on the self-assured Few Good Things track “Make Believe”: “I got everything I could ever need.”

C.T. Robert

Few Good Things is out 2/4 via Pivot Gang, LLC.

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