In Chicago rapper Saba’s first album, Bucket List Project, every hopeful melody was imbued with a sense of urgency. The skits that bookend many of the tracks feature vocal snippets from different collaborators on the album, answering the question, “what’s on your bucket list?” Even in good times, these skits revealed an artist profoundly aware of the fleeting nature of life in Chicago’s West Side. Two years later, and three years ago, CARE FOR ME saw Saba try to cope with the tragic fulfillment of that warning.
On February 7, 2017, Saba’s cousin and collaborator John Walt was killed. A rapper and fellow member of the hip-hop collective Pivot, John Walt was robbed and stabbed to death after being followed off the Chicago subway. “Jesus got killed for our sins, Walter got killed for a coat/ I’m try’na cope, but there’s a part of me gone/ And apparently, I’m alone,” Saba laments on the opening track, BUSY/SIRENS.
Despite the mandatory bravado and self-confidence that is so prevalent in hip-hop, using the medium to express one’s vulnerability is not at all new to the genre. Following in the legacy of tracks from the likes of Biggie and Tupac, Kanye’s “808’s and Heartbreaks” introduced a mainstream hip-hop audience to an overtly downtrodden and auto-tuned sound. Since, an endless carousel of rappers crooning about depression and death routinely top charts. However, Saba’s sincerity could not be further from the lean-fueled, surface-level glamorization of suicide and mental illness. Instead, Saba creates emotional impact through hyper-personal narratives. Saba doesn’t wallow in his depression for the audience’s benefit— he goes through the stages of grief in real-time. “I don’t tell the truth so ya’ll will feel sorry for me/ My best friend’s obituary really hangs on my wall, by the dresser” he bemoans on Calligraphy.
It is undoubtedly clear that Saba’s grief comes from a place of sincerity. When Saba was nearing completion of the album in early 2018, he began to relisten to all his recent tracks. “I was listening with one of the producers and he actually pointed it out: ‘Damn dude, all of these songs are about Walt.’ I didn’t even realize.”
CARE FOR ME also represents an artistic highlight for the producer trio of Saba, DaedaePivot, and Daoud. The blend of Chicago house, drill, lofi, and jazz influences makes for an album that supplements its lyrical presence and conceptual depth with melodic and energetic textures. The Jazz-rap outro on GREY is a particular highlight, with shades of the extraordinary Avantdale Bowling Club from the same year. Saba has a great ability to flow over a wide variety of musical backdrops, from indie pop to Kanye-style chipmunk soul. In the future, I would love to see Saba explore his vast rapping talent on albums with less of a singular focus. However, this talent is reigned in on CARE FOR ME, as the contemplative nature of the content doesn’t lend itself to a kaleidoscopic blend of instrumentals.
Saba doesn’t let his grief disregard the conscious and insightful meditations on society that are present in his past work. Instead, he examines these larger factors through a personal lens. The tracks BUSY/SIRENS, LIFE, and SMILE are the best examples of this characteristic, where Saba delivers incisive commentary on police, incarceration, and positivity. In between, Saba takes time to survey all aspects of his life, from his relationship with women in BROKEN GIRLS, the state of the music industry in GREY, and dependency on social media in LOGOUT.
These themes, built up over the first eight tracks, culminate in the narrative and emotional climax of the album— “PROM/KING.” Over haunting piano melodies, Saba recounts with his characteristic precision and storytelling ability the history of his and Walt’s relationship. In frantic verse, we learn why Walt meant so much to Saba, serving as his mentor, protector, and companion as the two find success and happiness. As the track continues, Saba eschews his understated demeanor for a crescendo of frenetic drums and wild intonation. The story, delivery, and the music complement each other to convey an overwhelming sense of a situation wildly spinning out of control, as Saba recounts the day he heard of Walt’s death. The narrative is done— the impact behind the constant allusions to Walt throughout the album is revealed. With the 7-minute verse over, we hear the deceased John Walt’s voice sing with terrible foreshadowing; “Just another day in the ghetto/ And the streets bring sorrow/ I just hope I’ll make it to tomorrow.”
Even in the title, CARE FOR ME describes a call for help— a longing for companionship in the loneliness of grief. From the opening lines of the album, we are transported into the mind of a character overwhelmed by the trials of his environment.
I’m so aloneBUSY/SIRENS
But all of my friends, but all of my friends, got some shit to do
All of ‘em got plans, I call ‘em up, “my bad, “ and text ‘em
They never cross me like bad pedestrians
I been this awkward since adolescence
I don’t how long I had depression
“Tell me, how are you sad?
You got all of these friends, you got all of these fans”
Yet Saba ends his journey with the wistfully hopeful HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME. Saba raps from the perspective of Walt, in his last moments of life, ascending to heaven. As the urgency of his impending death recedes, he is left with an eerie calm, an inner peace. The listener can only hope that this peace extends to Saba as the distance from grief inevitably grows.
No, I can’t feel pain but I can see the stars
I ain’t leave in vain but I know we with God
There’s heaven all around me
There’s heaven all around me
There’s heaven all around me
There’s heaven all around.