Saba Enters the Spotlight
On April 5, 2018, Chicago rapper Saba released his second studio-produced album “Care for Me,” an original and artistic expression of his own overwhelming mental health struggles. The emotional depths and skillfully crafted beats that “Care for Me” pours forth make it impossible not to wonder why the up and coming rapper is not gaining more recognition.
Saba first immersion into the popular scene was on Chance the Rapper’s second official mixtape “Acid Rap.” Now, with the exception of “10 day,” he’s been featured on all of Chance the Rapper’s projects, most notably appearing on Angels, a song on the grammy-winning album “Coloring Book.”
His debut mixtape, “GET COMFORTable,” in 2012, established Saba’s own identity in the hip-hop world and displayed his ability to produce, rap, and create work of his own. His first studio album, “Bucket List,” came out four years later and further showcased Saba’s strengths, especially his capacity to create original and meaningful lyrics. While “Care for Me” clearly shares the same foundational approach of both “Bucket List” and “GET COMFORTable,” it is of a slightly different breed from Saba’s past work. More subdued, refined, and melodic, this new album creates a completely different mood from the typically upbeat and confident tracks of Saba’s past.
This shift is not arbitrary. In February of last year, Saba’s cousin and mentor John Walt was fatally stabbed in Chicago at the age of 24. Within the first minute of the album, Saba brings up the death of his cousin, who he refers to as Walter, stating “I’m tryna’ cope, but it’s a part of me gone and apparently I’m alone.” This first song on the album, “BUSY / SIRENS,” opens with a direct confrontation of Saba’s depression and feelings of social isolation. Slow and melodic, listeners are eased into Saba’s state of distress.
The pace picks up in the third track, “LIFE,” in what seems to be a more aggressive, energized and angry version of the first song. Walter’s death is the focus of the chorus, and Saba continues to emote the effects this event had on who he is as a person. From here, the album becomes relaxed again, at first melancholy, but gradually becoming more optimistic. In “SMILE,” Saba takes the focus off of his own personal life and shifts to life for African Americans at large, with an emphasis on the history of the south and northern cities, such as Chicago. With childhood imagery and a hint of nostalgia, “SMILE” helps balance the mood of the album between dark and light.
Saba momentarily breaks from his emotion-heavy lyrics in “LOGOUT,” a commentary on social norms in the digital age, which briefly features Chance the Rapper. The typical Saba-Chance dynamic was reversed in this song, and while I had anticipated Chances verse to be the gold of “LOGOUT,” Saba more than held his own. His voice is incredibly versatile – from verse to verse, he almost sounds like multiple different rappers. This ability to shift amongst different tones and tempos is part of what makes “Care for Me” so engaging.
“PROM / KING,” the second to last song on the album, is the ultimate showcase of Saba’s talent. He brings the listener into a full seven and a half minutes of storytelling, in which he reveals his own coming of age story through the lense of his relationship with his cousin. Only after this song does the audience truly understand the extent to which Walt impacted Saba’s life. The song ends with an anecdote from the day Walt died, building in pace and intensity until it abruptly ends with an outro of Walt’s own voice singing “I just hope I make it ‘til tomorrow.” “PROM / KING” left me staring at my computer with chills, engulfed in Saba’s story.
The album ends with the subdued, bitter-sweet “HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME.” The raw emotions and shock bared open in the last song linger heavily on the listener, and the final track is a quiet reflection of this pain. The song seems to acknowledge all of the heartbreak “Care for Me” expressed while also looking towards the future with as much genuine hope as is possible.