The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Chicago rapper Saba finds inspiration close to home on ‘Few Good Things’

Chicago rapper Saba. (Dawit N.M.)
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Near the end of a promotional short film for his new album, “Few Good Things,” the rapper Saba looks up at a window on his great-grandmother’s old townhouse. He glares affectionately from his car, his face wistful, as if he’s remembering the years of hugs, fights and Sunday dinners that must’ve taken place there.

But the curtains have been replaced with tattered plastic. The house sits vacant, another sign of a bygone era.

Gentrification, financial stability and survivor’s guilt are at the heart of Saba’s new album, his first since the critically acclaimed “CARE FOR ME” almost four years ago. But where that album found him processing grief in the wake of his cousin’s slaying, “Few Good Things” finds him taking stock of the life he’s amassed and the pressures that come along with it. Yet he doesn’t just celebrate the fame and padded bank account; he’s thankful but circumspect, remembering those who didn’t make it to this point.

“I think losing people early, people who are close to you, you always wonder what you could have done differently to change that,” says the 27-year-old rapper over Zoom from his Los Angeles home. “You can feel survivor's guilt and it doesn't even require death. It's based on the grief of like, ‘Everybody’s not going to experience what I'm experiencing.’ It ends up sticking with you in a way that is damn near unhealthy.”

The album arrives following the death of yet another friend in his inner circle. In August, Squeak — a DJ, producer and member of the Pivot Gang rap collective with Saba — was gunned down on a neighborhood street in Chicago’s West Side. He was 26.

“I lose somebody close to me with every release,” Saba says woefully. “And I know that's a part of aging in general, but it leaves a bad taste in your mouth when it's not natural.”

Born Tahj Malik Chandler, Saba was raised on Chicago’s West Side by his grandparents; his parents were around and active in his life. When he was 5, his father, an R&B singer and producer named Chandlar, moved to New York City to pursue his music full time. In 2004, he released the album “Strong Emotion” to little fanfare, but it led to performance opportunities with Jaheim and Missy Elliott on the road. “So that’s where the idea of music was introduced to me, really,” Saba says. “And I think that’s also where the idea of the fearlessness that comes with being a musician was introduced to me, because I watched my dad give up everything that he had in Chicago.”

Saba grew up in a musical family. His younger brother made beats; his grandmother and paternal relatives were singers. He listened to rap artists like Pharrell and Dipset as a 6-year-old, and became a fan of the rap group Bone Thugs-N-Harmony after hearing “Notorious Thugs,” their 1997 song with the Notorious B.I.G., on a burned CD. “I listened to this song back to back … like nonstop,” he says. “And then I thought, ‘Oh, I need to hear more of their music. That’s who I need to be listening to.’ ”

That’s when Saba realized rap music could be anything; it didn’t have to sound one way. “It’s a canvas,” he says. “You can make it whatever you want. When I heard that song, it was like, … ‘Oh, okay, now I can do this.’ ”

Saba took piano classes soon after. “My mom taught me how to play ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ on a toy piano,” he says with a laugh. “I went to my great-grandma’s house, where she had a real piano. I played it and she was so impressed that she ended up giving me that piano.” He lasted three years with the instrument. Though he could play back what he heard, he couldn’t read music: “It got so overwhelming that I just wanted to stop.” He took what he’d learned playing piano and started making beats. “I was playing classical recitals, but I didn't desire to do that,” Saba says. “I was just trying to learn how to play an instrument so that I can use what I learned in a studio setting.”

Rapper MFnMelo met Saba as a precocious 13-year-old who already had a keen ear for arranging music. He would hang out in the budding musician’s basement and rap over the instrumentals being created. The seeds of what would be Pivot Gang were being planted.

And Melo knew Saba would be special. “He’s just very sure of himself,” he says. “Even when he’s uncertain about something musically, he’s sure he can figure it out.”

Pivot Gang performed at open-mics throughout the West Side and quickly became popular. “We would yell out Pivot and everybody would say that s--- back,” Saba recalls. “Hearing that? It does something. We’re teenagers, so hearing the power and the name of our collective, we knew we had something.”

Over the next three years, Saba released two well-received mix tapes (“GETCOMFORTable” and “ComfortZone”), was featured on Chance the Rapper’s breakthrough mix tape, “Acid Rap,” and released his debut album, “Bucket List Project,” to widespread acclaim. It dropped in 2016 amid a wave of noted releases from the city’s emerging talent: Noname, Smino, Jamila Woods, Ravyn Lenae and Mick Jenkins. Then “CARE FOR ME” came out and the raves were nearly universal. Suddenly, Saba was an ascendant star. “How everyone sees him now is how I saw him at 13,” Melo says.

On “Few Good Things,” Saba looks back with a slight grin and not a furrowed brow. By his own admission, “CARE FOR ME” was dark (“You had to be in the right head space on a Sunday night with headphones,” he jokes). Here, he wanted a lively record that made the subject matter more palatable. While tracks “Come My Way” and “If I Had a Dollar” actually predate the previous album’s release, much of “Few Good Things” was created in 2020 during the height of the pandemic. Initially, Saba was going to put out a mix tape — “just a collection of some fun songs,” he says. But when the world shut down because of the coronavirus, the music he’d planned to release didn’t fit the mood. It was much more festive and didn’t tell a story, so he reworked the album, recorded the song “Fearmonger” over Zoom last year, and came back with a more honest project that represents the time.

Family is also a dominant theme on “Few Good Things.” On the cover is his grandfather, Carl, sitting against a chain-link fence in front of his mother’s house, with his face peering through pastel-colored flowers. Saba name-checks his granddad on the opening track, “Free Samples,” and includes a phone call with him for the promotional film.

In the short film, against a slow blend of abstract scenes, Carl and Saba discuss the house in question, and why they sold the house in the first place. “I had those savings to fix it up,” Carl tells his grandson. “I wanted to keep it … for 40 years or 50 years, everybody would go into the house.” It wasn’t just his mother’s house; it was a respite for people in the neighborhood who needed safe haven.

The house becomes a character on “Few Good Things” and an asylum for Saba himself. It’s why he looks so fondly at it: It raised the people who raised him.

“I want people to go away with something,” Saba says of the album. “What you feel is up to you, but feel something. It’s a lot of emotions. There were a lot of worlds we went in and out of. It’s a culmination of everything.”