The lights in the band room of Howler dim as Chicago’s Saba gets ready to take to the stage for the first show of his Australian tour. People are pressed tightly against one-another, packing out the 400 capacity venue as giant ceiling fans carry the smell of B.O and beer through the air.
The sell-out show had been a long time coming for the rapper, who’s been a streaming success with Australian listeners since the release of his sleek, jazzy 2016 album Bucket List Project. He started generating buzz even earlier, with a standout verse on Chance The Rapper’s 2013 track “Everybody’s Something”, and the soulful mixtape Comfort Zone. Both explored politics, love and spirituality—themes which he’d come to revisit on Bucket List Project, alongside stories of poverty, relationships and violence in Chicago. This year’s critically acclaimed album Care For Me is his most fully realised yet, a direct reaction to the death of John Walt—his best friend, cousin, and Pivot Gang member—who was murdered in early 2017. Over the album’s 10 tracks Saba wrestles with loss, romance and success over watery, melancholic instrumentals he produced alongside Pivot Gang members Daoud and daedaePIVOT. The sombre sounds of Care For Me opener “Busy/Sirens” blared in Melbourne as a beaming Saba took the stage, and the crowd almost took the roof off. The first lines of that song are “I’m so alone but, happily, it didn’t seem that way.
Before the show, Saba stopped by the Acclaim studio to talk about creating Care For Me, the highs and lows that come with being an independent artist, and why he thinks the kids are the one to save humanity.
Hey Saba, how are you today?
I’m super great. Slept all day yesterday, so I feel normal again, I feel like myself.
I saw on Instagram that you were watching Rugby on TV last night. Did you enjoy that?
Man, I was just going through channels, and on one of them it was like—oh, I wish I could remember this dude’s name because it was such a normal name and I remembered it for like three hours last night maybe—it was a guy who went to play professional soccer, then went to professional basketball , then I changed the channel and it was rugby. I was juiced watching it, it made me think like, “Man I’m really in another country right now, I’ve never seen this sport played.” When I put it on my Instagram a few people I know back in Chicago said they played it, so maybe I just wasn’t hip.
Care For Me has earned pretty resounding critical acclaim. Now you’ve had a few months for all the reviews to sink in, how do you feel?
I feel great about it. We did a lot of that album in solitude—our manager didn’t even hear the album until it was pretty much done. We worked on it so fast in such concentrated studio sessions. It came together quickly, the rollout came quickly. It’s been a year since we actually started working on the album, and things haven’t slowed down since. We put it out, toured, did festivals, then I was home for the holidays, now I’m here, then I’m home for the holidays again, then I’m going to the UK. And I really think it’s a fire album. With music, you might be listening to something you don’t necessarily like, but sometimes you gotta’ admit it’s still fire. That’s what I think Care For Me is: an objectively good body of work, an art piece. It feels good knowing that.
Was there a theme you were consciously writing to, or did the message of the album really come together during the studio sessions.
It all came naturally, it was organic. Honestly, a lot of the songs didn’t even really fit together, but conceptually we made them fit. It’s funny, because when I started making Care For Me I was trying to make the complete opposite record [laughs]. I was trying to make a bunch of hard, fun songs. But mentally, I wasn’t there yet. I had to make Care For Me to get to that place. I had to get these things off of my chest in the studio in order to be loose and free. It’s been cool to see people connect with such an honest album.
It’s a really honest record. There’s some dense themes there: love, loss, growth. Was it difficult to revisit those moment in your past?
It was the easiest it’s ever been to make music. The fact that we made it so quickly goes to show how easy it was. All these themes were things that were already on my mind, all I had to was write them down. That’s not to say that it wasn’t hard work, because it was, but we were able to do it so quickly because we were being honest. It came easy because it was already there. And it’s interesting because [on the album] I’m speaking as specifically as possible about my past relationships and my past thinking, but there’s something so universal about it. I think people tend to find themselves in music, they could be listening to a story I’m telling and find themselves in it. I think that’s why it’s so important to be honest in music, a lot of lives can change that way. That’s one of the reasons I think making a record like Care For Me is important, because the listener is able to grieve with me in a sense. I made the record at a very vulnerable time in my life, so it’s almost like a space for people to check in on themselves. A lot of people just don’t have the time or space to do that in the day-to-day lives.
You touch on a similar on “CALLIGRAPHY”, with the lyric “No time for mournin’ on my schedule.” Is hard to balance rap and being human?
I think for some people it is. Sometimes for me it is, too. But it’s almost become our brand at this point, we’ve carved a lane for me to be human and this rap star at the same time. I’m still learning as I go, and it does get hard to maintain relationships when you’re busy in general. If your friends and family at home and you’re overseas it does get difficult to keep in touch. Like, I’m 17 hours ahead of everyone home right now, it does get tricky to do regular human things. But I don’t think it’s hard to be human as a rapper. People only expect what you’ve shown them in the past, and if you’ve always been human, they’ll expect human. I think it gets hard when you become this super God-like guy and people expect that from you, and now you’re like “Ahhh, I can’t be human,” because you made yourself that way.
One of my favourite songs on Care For Me is ‘HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME’, which feels like a beacon of hope at the end of the album. How did you find hope in times of darkness?
I’ve always been very imaginative. As a kid, I was always into art and things like that. I’ve always been a light at the end of the tunnel type of person. I’ve also known people that aren’t, and I’ve been the one they come to when they feel like there’s no hope. I think that sense of innocence, that childlike innocence, is important for humanity. People need to nurture the part of themselves that brought them happiness as a kid. When we’re like six and we’re oblivious to the world and the fucked up shit going on, that’s some of the best time in our lives. Pursuing music, you also have to be hopeful. I used to get two listens [on my songs], I used to get four listens, and I was never discouraged by any of it. I used to be like, “two people listened to this one, 50 people listened to this one, 99 listened to this one.” That small growth would inspire me. It’s so easy to be hopeless. Especially in a world like this, it’s so easy to give up. What’s harder is smiling every day and trying to figure it out. Nurturing that sense of hope and that childlike innocence is the way. I really think the kids are the ones who are going to save humanity. We just have to figure it out.
The album feels very Chicago, and something I find interesting about Chicago is the camradie between the cities different scenes, the drill music and the more lyrical stuff. You don’t really see in many other cities.
I think being from Chicago, we see the importance of all of the players and all the sound the city has to offer. I take as much pride in drill music as I do in whatever you call our music, because it’s just as representative of our city and culture. We don’t really look at it as two different things, because it comes from the same place, and it describes the same things. It all feels like home. We feel equally as represented by G.Herbo and Chief Keef as we do Chance.
Lil Durk was recently The Breakfast Club saying that he feels you have to escape Chicago to be a successful artist, because people there don’t want to see you win. Do you relate to that idea?
It’s 50/50. I think when you’re hyper-visible, it’s hard to be successful in places where you’re the only one. It creates tension and problems sometimes. I think that’s what he could be referring to. There’s also the necessity of collaboration, and working with people outside of Chicago. In places like L.A where there’s just a lot more work. But you can be successful in a lot of ways. I think you can be successful and stay in Chicago, but you might not want to be just a Chicago artist. You might want to be a global artist, and that requires spending time in different places—like Australia—not just at home. To be a global artist you have to explore the globe.
Something I find so impressive about your come up is that you did it independently. Why didn’t you chase the support of a major?
I don’t think it was ever a choice for us. That’s all we had. There wasn’t a label that was trying to sign us, but we weren’t going to let that hinder what we were doing. Especially in Chicago, because everybody was independent, it was just us doing what we knew. I don’t know, if I were to put independent versus major in a boxing ring, I think they might both knock each other out [laughs]. We’ve been doing this independent thing for so long now, and we’re finally starting to see the wins and the positives, but there’s a lot of struggles that we go through that a major artist doesn’t. But then again, vice versa! I see a lot of signed artists go through struggles that I have never had because I’m independent. The grass is always greener on the other side.
How do you define success?
I think everybody’s definition of success should be rooted in their own happiness. I was watching an interview with an artist today, I can’t remember who, but they were saying that if you define success by your money, fame, girls, cars, whatever, you’re always going to be chasing something. You’ll never feel complete. I’ve realised that it’s something I do sometimes, I think “If I get this big I’ll be successful” then I get there and it’s like, “Okay, if I get this big I’ll be successful.” So I’m still learning as I go. Family is really important, friendships and connections are so important. Juggling being successful and feeling connect to the people I care about is something I eventually want to reach.
That’s great to hear man. You recently dropped four singles in four weeks, with the standout to me being “Beautiful Smile” with IDK. Does it feel good to just drop singles after such a heavy album?
Yeah, it really does. Care For Me, although amazing, is super heavy. It’s not an album you can just bump all the time. We’ve been out of that space mentally, and we’ve been making so much new music. I don’t want to limit anything, I just want to keep putting stuff out. It feels like a good time right now, because people want it. The plan is to stay on the path to becoming one of the greatest, and I think we’re on that path right now. Just keep learning as we go.
Stream Saba’s album Care For Me here.
Photography: Michael Danischewski
Art Direction: Paul Allworthy