As the first snow of December laid its foundation outside my window, I found myself seated across my kitchen table from Chicago rapper Saba. As the TheseDays team settled into chairs and couches around the floor, we gave the man a few minutes to warm up from the photoshoot outside in the newfound winter. It’s been three years since last sitting down like this with Saba for a story and in the time since the young man from the Austin neighborhood on the west side of Chicago has come a long way. From performing alongside Chance The Rapper on ‘The Late Show’ to touring across the country and Europe, his horizons have certainly expanded from his Grandma’s basement out west. That three year journey manifested itself in September in the thirteen song collection, The Bucket List Project, a thoughtful, charged glance at life’s experiences juxtaposed with early success. While the stages may have gotten larger, the lights a bit brighter and the stakes ever higher, life isn’t all that different for the kid I first saw spitting raps on a Tuesday night at Young Chicago Author’s Wordplay open mic.
“Not much has changed man, life isn’t all that different,” says the 21-year-old rapper who has put his side of the city back in the limelight with his latest release.
It seems like an odd admission of feigned humility for an artist who has been on a steady rise since the release of his sophomore project, ComfortZone in 2014 which, along with fellow local Mick Jenkins and several others from the city, established him as part of the wave that would come to follow that of Chance, Vic Mensa and the Social Experiment. However, in the age of digital streaming, self-distribution and the Internet, one can operate as a famous rapper in wait while simultaneously living in the same place they grew up their whole lives.
That’s the reality at least for Saba, who lives in the same basement at his Grandma’s house where he spent his adolescence and teenage years. Raised by his grandmother, the self-professed shy kid who used hip-hop as a way to find his voice might be seeing similar things day to day, but the reality he’s preparing for has been built in the three long years between ComfortZone and Bucket List. Much of that first project deals with the pains of traveling via the scattered and often short-sighted Chicago Public Transportation, from being stranded on the south side to the frustration of the buses on the west side ending service early. In the wake of the success that the breakthrough mixtape had, Saba decided to do something about that, buying himself a car of his very own.
“I played a show at Bottom Lounge and I made some money and I was tired of being on the train and on the bus and shit, So I said fuck it, I bought a car off Craigslist, it was an ’01 Honda Civic.”
That was 2015. Today, he whips a 2013 Chevy Cruze, not flashy by any means, but solid and reliable. Similar to his current mode of transportation, Saba’s career is one that’s proven to be reliably dependable and consistently centered while dealing with the world around it.
Whereas the previous release was a hopeful ode to lessons yet to be learned, youthful exuberance doing it all it could to understand itself. His latest work is markedly more grown. While his last project may have found him traveling around the country and the world, but it was the lessons learned here at home that turned out to shape the list he was making.
Sitting across from Saba it’s hard not to think back to that first conversation on the back steps of his Grandma’s house in the summer of 2014. I had traveled further west down North Avenue than I had previously, pulling up to the front gate of the modest home with manicured lawn around noon. Working on a story for Noisey in the wake of ComfortZone’s release, Saba talked of breaking out of his shy stage, hints of which could still be found in his mannerisms and speech. As scenes evolve and find success, it’s often the most mundane of settings that become iconic vessels of memory. Looking back over the last few years, the basement where we first met is turning out to be just that for a huge sub-section of the city’s latest stars and the perfect catalyst for Saba’s entrance into the larger scene in his hometown.
2011-2014 saw artists like Noname, Vic Mensa, Mick Jenkins, Lucki Eck$ and more streaming up and down the concrete stairs leading to the back door of the house in the Austin neighborhood. Having met at the now-storied after school programs like Young Chicago Authors and YouMedia and seen them perform, he saw an opportunity to get involved and decided to offer his makeshift underground studio to the fledgling acts from the poetry programs.
“Me being a part of like any of this shit is really like a blessing because I almost had nothing to do with it, being on the west side its like you get stuck there, like I don’t know Chance, I don’t know Noname, I don’t know any of these people so how I needed up even a part of it was because my homie Jimmy, he was the one who was going to the open mics and shit, he started PIVOT with Joseph actually. So thats kind of how I got introduced to all of these people who were in the city doing shit,” Saba remembers. “It wasn’t like anyone had followings or anything like that, it just became a collaborative thing rather than a competitive thing and I think for us in Chicago, we were just young at the same time and were able to really see the benefit of rather than looking at this like solely competitively, let’s look at it collaboratively.”
Much of what’s come to be known as the Chicago Renaissance has emerged in large part due to individual’s willingness to play their part. For Saba, his role initially was as a self-taught engineer with an affordable home studio from which much of the early work of a recognizable wave of Chicago rappers, singers and musicians recorded their early singles. Perhaps somewhat akin to a small, local version of Atlanta’s famed basement studio ’The Dungeon’, the back door of Saba’s Grandma’s house become a revolving door of names that today share the country’s biggest headlines and stages.
While many in his position would have been quick to take advantage of the obvious talent around him, Saba served his purpose, tucking his own raps away unless prompted. It was the innate camaraderie that came from late nights and long days of creation in a dark basement and the friendships that grew from seeing one another around town at high school parties and hangouts downtown that gave organic rise to the collaborations that would follow. Another distinct catalyst for the current onslaught of success in the city has been credited to the willingness of artists from different sides of the city to cross previously entrenched borders that have long characterized Chicago. While much has been written about SaveMoney’s contribution, boasting members from all across the city’s north, west and south sides; little has been credited to the importance of Saba’s modest westside enclave. Through the ability to provide a necessary service, he was able to connect with a long list of fellow artists he otherwise may have never known.
“I think for me, it’s crazy to see what everything has turned into. I think I’ve known that everybody I’ve met along the way which I just feel like I happen to be at the right place at the right time to meet the right people, but I always knew they were talented I always knew they would do something, but to really be able to see what everybody’s doing, myself included is kinda crazy thing but sit just goes to show that that kind of ‘anything is possible’ shit that you’re taught when you’re young, that shit is real as fuck. And I think just having a community and being involved in a community where you’re seeing everybody show that to you, it helps, mentally it helps. I think pursuing art is a crazy up-down type of thing but I think the more you’re exposed to success the more at ease you are with the idea of pursuing it.”
A little over a year ago I found myself on the road, packed into an oversized white cargo van with Saba, who had joined The O’My’s and ProbCause for a quick run through the midwest in late Fall 2015. Essentially barnstorming Chicago rap and soul across college campuses within a day’s ride of the city, the humble presence of the young artist was readily evident. Arriving without a manager or even a DJ, he was on the road to work, to make money for rent and bills and life. A month later he would be stepping across the Late Night Show stage opposite Chance The Rapper and Stephen Colbert, but this week he was carrying his own bags to the venue, caught sleep in the cramped van seats between towns and ate Denny’s. Such is the nature of the life of an entertainer and it’s a grey area Saba has existed in since ComfortZone. With all the accolade and recognition, he was very much still figuring it out while dealing with the pains and frustrations that evolution can bring.
The loss of his uncle, the time spent away from home, the uncertainty of what’s next in a rapper’s future all made the year a heavy one for Saba, but one that provided plenty of learning experiences as well. It was during that time that he started developing what would become his latest full-length in three years, The Bucket List Project. Culled from a lifetime of experiences growing up on the oft-forgotten streets of Chicago’s west side Austin neighborhood, he used the release as a sort of narrative understanding of that reality. While the southside may be known for it’s rough areas, the city’s left end has dealt with generations of disinvestment, arson and increasing food deserts that run in stark contrast to the suburb of Oak Park just across the street. While the area is long known for its rich culture, footworking, bopping and the like, having produced big-time acts like Do Or Die, Twista and D-Low, it’s biggest star to date is arguably Lupe Fiasco.
“It’s really just that connection like being from the west side it’s like you don’t really have anybody to look up to. It’s Twista and Lupe,” said Saba. “But you never really hear stories of success from the west side so I think thats one of the reasons I wanted to keep reiterating ‘yes I’m from Chicago, but I’m not from where everybody else is from, I’m from this specific area and I wanted to keep that message strong.”
Strong indeed. The message that has been a constant throughout his works to date finds centerstage here as Saba carefully unpacks what growing up in his neck of the woods is like while allowing it to be readily relatable. Similar to the way Chance zoomed in on his native Chatham with 10 Day & Acid Rap and how Joey Purp detailed his tumultuous journeys around the city on this year’s iiiDrops, the westside native’s Bucket List Project puts the lens squarely on his immediate surroundings, which haven’t changed all that much. While certainly not lacking in thoughtfulness, Saba rightfully eschews the ‘conscious’ tag often forced upon any act from next to the lake that decides to give meaning to something other than belts and gunfire.
“A lot of people try to be like ‘conscious rapper Saba’ but it’s like I don’t know shit about politics, I feel like to be a conscious rapper I need to know about politics,” said Saba. “I think a lot of people don’t realize that there are a lot of different sides of Chicago so I think for me I wanted to speak on that especially because being from the west side, there’s not many artists at all. Not even to just separate it by ‘you lyrical or you drill’ but there’s just not many artists, you can probably count them on one hand. So I think just taking pride in that, trying to inspire all the listeners who listen to Bucket List but to have that specific reach for the west side of Chicago because its where I’m from one, but two its just this place that really needs helps and I don’t have a lot of means to do it but the one thing that I do have now is a voice and you know thats why its so direct, it’s really strong on damn near every song but it’s just yeah trying to find that thirteen year old kid like I was.”
As he thinks back to growing up in Austin and making his way out from the west side, Saba remembers being arrested the first time he and his cousin rode their bikes around the corner, he remembers losing friends and neighbors, what it feels like to be treated as lesser than someone else for no apparent reason. In that though, he’s also discovered a sort of misunderstood beauty, offering a sort of backing soundtrack for the area where he came of age provided for those who will invariably follow in his wake. Hannibal Burress, who grew up just a few blocks from the area that is central to the stories Saba tells on his latest project, has become one of its biggest fans, saying he’d yet to hear music that reflected his reality.
While the westside of Chicago may not be the first choice of many to grow up in, the neighborhood has become an inescapable theme for Saba not because of it’s uniqueness, but because he understands it further represents neighborhoods like his that exist all around the world. He may bristle at the word conscious and play up the trap-influence of many of his raps, but first and foremost Saba is a finely-tuned storyteller with the talent to match the ideas. As he continues to move forward into yet another year that finds him double-stepping plateaus with seeming ease, he’ll do so with a clear understanding and message that can permeate even the most frigid of realities.
“That’s just what shit is like. On Bucket List I feel like I just wanted to speak on that, not just the westside but areas like the westside. A lot of places I go to, like Oakland is one of them. I spend a lot of time in Oakland and they got a similar thing with East Oakland and West Oakland and everybody treats West Oakland like its a piece of shit when it’s really like a great place. But you know there are a lot of neighborhoods in the world that have the same almost exact story as the west side of Chicago, Saba said. “ I don’t think it’s necessarily like a responsible effort like ‘I gotta be the voice of these kids’ ‘I gotta get these kids off the street’ you know it’s nothing like that. It’s really just I would be uncomfortable putting out a rap that was fake or that was rapping about something that wasn’t my life, I would be very uncomfortable doing that. So for me, with everything that I do I want to write but I want to write my experience, sometimes I might try to tell the story of an experience that was close to me, that I feel like I can have a conversation about.”