Words by Alec Stern
One minute and fifty-two seconds into “American Hypnosis”, the eleventh track on his 2016 album Bucket List Project, Saba raps “I hated my life until I played the piano”. It’s a line that speaks about identity; how a single small moment can completely separate one’s life into a concrete “before” and “after”. In the same way, this is often how we look back on our lives after we lose someone close to us. Like Bucket List Project, Saba’s newest album, CARE FOR ME emerged from a place of grief, and in both cases, it was familial. Even the album’s title, stylized in all caps, reads as a plea for rescue from the pain and burden of simply surviving what others have not. It’s the sound of someone who’s reached the “Acceptance” stage of grief, yet sees none of the clarity that was promised in getting there. But there is something bigger at work with this record, and I could feel it from the first moment I put it on. Over the last several years, I have come to understand that loss is far more complex than most paint it to be. There’s more going on than simply grief, and even grief itself has layers of abstruse humanity buried within it. CARE FOR ME is unquestionably a record about loss, yet within that simple concept, so much about the experience of life emerges through its cracks.
CARE FOR ME caught me off-guard with its humanity. In returning to it over-and-over again the last few months, I’ve often wondered if other people see as much of themselves in this record as I do. I’ve questioned if it could mean as much to people outside of Chicago as it means to our community. I’ve wanted to know, given the slew of new music available at our fingertips every day, how many people even knew the record existed. It was following these curiosities that led me to want to write this piece. Yet the real reason is that I, like Saba, find writing to be the most effective and cathartic way of working through the thoughts and feelings I simply cannot shake. Something about this record just needed to come out of me, even if I didn’t know what that thing was. It wasn’t until I was deep into writing, weeks of putting my thoughts on the page, that I came to the realization that in a sense, I had been linked with this record since it’s very beginning.
The first time I saw Saba was at the Metro in Chicago on February 9, 2017. It was the second night of Noname’s Telefone tour, a celebration of the recent release of the Chicago rapper’s debut album of the same name. There are two things I distinctly remember about that show. The first was, despite the album being released only days prior, the entire crowd on the floor of the Metro, comprised of almost all high school and college-age kids, sang along to every. single. word. There is something about a homecoming show, or even more, a concert for a hometown hero as he or she embarks on the road to eventual stardom, that brings out something special in everyone involved. The energy and excitement in that room made it clear: no matter what happened to Noname after this night, she would always represent Chicago proudly, and we in-turn would always have her back. That’s just something about Chicago that I know to be true. The second thing I remember about that performance is the tears. Throughout the performance, Noname would drop the mic to her side in order to collect herself; to wipe the tears from her eyes, or to take a much-needed moment of pause. The crowd and I ate it up, and ecstatically cheered every time she did so. It was such a beautifully intimate and human moment to share: all too rare to see from an artist on a major stage. In that moment, she was both the best of us and just like us at the same time, and it was profoundly moving to see how emotional this moment had made her. It wasn’t until the end of the set, however, that we learned the true reason for her tears. After performing the album in its near entirety, she quietly approached the microphone, and with a shaking voice, told us that she was sorry, immediately draping the room in a heightened and fragile quiet. The band came together at the side of the stage and looked on as she composed herself. The room was smaller, more approachable now. With a heavy sadness in her voice, she told us about a friend of hers who had died just one day before. Someone she had known for a long time. He had tragically, and senselessly, been killed after a fight on the train. As we all knew Noname, real name Fatima Nyeema Warner, was a born-and-raised Chicagoan, it was clear to all in the room that this fallen friend had been one too. We had lost one of our own, whether we had known him or not. It was then, after a respectful moment of silence in his honor, that she brought out her friend Taj, or Saba, to help her with the final song of the night. The song was called “Shadow Man”, and fittingly, it was about a funeral.
Within thirty seconds of CARE FOR ME, you hear the words “alone”, “awkward”, “peer pressure”, and “depression”. The music itself is hazy, diluted, and reflects the black, white, and grey of the cover photo of Saba in his grandmother’s kitchen. As you press play on the first song, “BUSY / SIRENS”, the music sounds as if it is waking itself from a slumber. It rubs its eyes and hunches up to sit, and then takes a small inhaled breath before Saba speaks the opening line: “I’m so alone”. These words come at you whether you are prepared for them or not, whether you know Saba or not. He’s reflecting on friendships, and the awkwardness he feels in his own skin while trying to maintain a closeness with those around him. He even expresses trouble coping with the fans he’s gained as a rapper, as it hasn’t gotten him any closer to any tangible human connection, despite what his peers all assume. It is here that the central theme of the record is presented, and the tone and content of it come into focus. Saba’s friend and cousin, John Walt, or Walter, has been killed. More specifically, he was killed “for a coat”. He says the word with utter disgust, as if he hopes to never see or wear one again. The senselessness of someone dying over such an object becomes even more heightened when paired with the words that precede it, as Saba pours salt in his own wound by reminding us all that “Jesus got killed for our sins”. As in; Jesus died for Something. My friend died for Nothing. This is hip hop as reflecting pool; songwriting as diary entry and vice-versa. And it’s very painful.
Hip hop as a form of storytelling has always maintained two distinct paths for artists to take: one that moves beyond reality, and one that doubles down on it. While there will always be a need for escapism and entertainment in music, perhaps especially for a genre that is rooted in the reality of disenfranchisement and the brutality favoring black communities of America, there will also always be a need for art to reflect the world as it exists. Within this framework, CARE FOR ME has emerged as a new masterwork in a long-list of classic rap albums, especially of late with the Obama years, and the reckoning of the post-racial lie that his victory prophesized. Famed Chicago Poet Kevin Coval borrowed Dave Egger’s famous title when dubbing it a “Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”. It’s stunningly cohesive, compelling, and refreshingly bold in its aims and execution. It’s remarkably timeless and universal in theme, yet it’s sonic pallet is singularly rooted in the sounds of Chicago. But it’s the perspective shown on the album, through each of its ten beautifully rendered songs, that gives the record its power and potency. CARE FOR ME is a multifaceted exploration of loss, and how intense and excruciating it can be when paired with love. It’s about the realities of being black, and being feared, and being lonely. It’s about family, and insecurity, and the police, and writing, and smiling. Perhaps above all, it’s about young men’s lives in Chicago, and how they feel, and matter, whether they live and tell their stories or not. Because for every life passed, there has to have been a life lived.
The record opens with “BUSY / SIRENS”, which sets the tone for the feel and stakes of the record right away, it’s 5:30 runtime practically an epic within today’s landscape of sub-two minute Soundcloud bites. The vibe is slow and downtrodden, yet thoughtful, as we are exposed to the frustrations, anxieties, and depression Saba feels with the people around him. The song’s hook is sung by theMIND, who is quickly becoming the Nate Dogg of Chicago’s rap scene. His vocals are remarkably distinct, and seem to always act as the perfect complement or counterpoint to the featured artist he is collaborating with. His words are simple and poignant, and his lyrics on “BUSY / SIRENS” contain some of the most profound ideas on the entire record. On the main hook, he sings, “I seen that skies were grey, I hope to God you’re safe”, in a prescient statement that is both highly superstitious and deeply protective at the same time. In the song’s bridge, he sings the following passage with heartbreak, soul, and a palpable hint of bitterness at a reality he knows too well.
“My biggest fear,
is that I have to say goodbye another time.
So I skip town on our moment, hopefully prolonging this.
I don’t need nobody new to miss.”
This concept, a flip on the idea that it is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, is almost unbearably sad yet completely understandable to anyone that has actually said goodbye to someone in the permanent sense. Those moments of grief and longing, the ones that feel that they might never end, and life will never go back to the way it once was, are the headspace Saba and theMIND are inviting us to with “BUSY”. In the world they live in, these moments are all-too familiar, where the prospect of death or imprisonment is a reality for themselves, their friends and their family. “SIRENS”, the second piece of the opening track, explores this theme, particularly the concept of being feared by the community and law enforcement simply because of your body: the experience of a woman clutching her purse “’cause of my dreadlocks” or a white person crossing the street “’cause I’m with my friends”. Or how the police will automatically assume one is “deservin’” because they “think my cellphone’s a weapon”. To underscore the record’s prophetic and credible worldview, one needs to look no further than Stephon Clark, who was fatally shot multiple times in his grandmother’s backyard for the same “misunderstanding” a mere 15 days before the album’s release.
The concepts of death and unjust imprisonment as a constant lurking presence continue on the song “LIFE”, where the chorus meditates:
“I got angels runnin’ way, I got demons huntin’ me
I know Pac was 25, I know Jesus 33.
I tell Death to keep a distance, I think he obsessed with me
I say “God, that’s a woman”, I know she would die for me”
It’s one thing to fear death, or to worry about going to jail, but it’s another thing entirely to see a systematic force diligently working to make your demise or imprisonment a greater reality. This has been the story of black life in America since the very beginning, with 250 years of slavery, to its modern form of segregation, the growing wealth gap, police brutality, and mass incarceration. These themes are addressed on CARE FOR ME in a powerful and ultimately more accessible fashion; by telling a specific story, broader strokes are unraveled. By saying “like a problem won’t exist if I just don’t exist”, he is replacing a statistic for a living, breathing, feeling human being. By saying “a lot people dream until they shit or get shot”, he is turning the unnamed and unknown causality into someone who had a present worth living for and future worth dreaming about. It’s telling, however, that he ends this line with two words that, when taken together with this context, can sound utterly foreign or chillingly familiar based on the listener’s skin color: “that’s life.”
The suite of songs that come next further detail Saba’s complexities, and shed light on his past and present. “CALIGRAPHY” details the way in which so many of us work through our demons; through writing. Saba is a product of Young Chicago Authors, the highly influential creative writing and performance youth organization that has been largely responsible for many of the city’s most notable artists of late, including Chance the Rapper, Jamila Woods, Eve Ewing, Malcolm London, and Noname. The city’s deep poetry scene is hugely responsible for this recent artistic renaissance period, providing a space for young creatives to express the realities of their lives, something particularly needed in a city like Chicago. Young Chicago Authors sessions famously begin by asking its attendees and students the simple, yet loaded question, “Where are you from?”, and on “SMILE” Saba tells us about his life in Austin, Chicago through stories of family.
If you Google Austin, Chicago right now, odds are that the three allotted “Top Stories” on the page will be related to shootings. This is the type of space many neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West Side operate in within the media, both citywide and nationwide. While the South Side is the segment of the city most will mention when discussing gun laws and crime statistics, several neighborhoods like Austin on the West Side struggle with the same issues. In fact, in 2016, Austin held the distinction of the most recorded homicides of any neighborhood in the city. Yet, in terms of coverage, the West Side is rendered rather invisible when compared with the South Side. Same problems, but no attention. Saba sheds light on this later in the album by saying, “we from the part of the city that they barely mention”.
Through their very existence, accounts like CARE FOR ME are so often what is needed to change these narratives. For places like Austin, and for other largely black neighborhoods around the country, communities are regularly written-off within a larger cultural framework as the sum of their worst parts. But for all the people lost in this viewpoint, the people that laugh, and cry, and dream, and make mistakes like everyone else, tracks like “SMILE” act as vital tributes. Here, Saba attempts to show a more multifaceted take on the place he calls home, by giving small, loving recognitions to his family and the place he grew up. The opening lines of the track are rapped with pride; fittingly, you can literally hear a smile on his lips as the words come through.
“Sweet west side Chicago, two-flat apartment
Red brick and garden, that’s been forgotten
Grass all splotchy, vacant lot splotchy, bank account splotchy
And we talk like we from the south”
A few tracks later is “GREY”, a title that could easily be the name of the record itself given the sonic pallet and multidimensional, “somewhere in-between” stance of many of the record’s ideas that are so often presented as black and white. The song, which ponders some of the pressures and issues of being an artist and the music industry as a whole, ends with a jazzy outro of horns, shuffling drums, and twinkling piano, and a freeform verse that concludes with shouts of “Everything is grey. Everything is grey. Everything.” What is most stark about this manic conclusion is how it segues into something completely controlled and carefully presented as the next song begins. Although there are only two proper tracks left on the album, there is a clear moment of distinction happening here, as if the course of the album is about to shift. The moment “PROM / KING” begins, with its ominous and compelling first line “This remind me of before we had insomnia”, it is clear that we have stepped into new territory as listeners.
On the date of CARE FOR ME’s release, mere minutes before it would be officially available for the world to absorb, Saba took to twitter for one final thought:
“Make sure on the first listen of #CAREFORME you are alone. You have to listen to it by yourself to fully understand”.
There is something underappreciated about being alone with a piece of music, especially one that demands as much from the listener as this does. Certain albums or songs are more of a one-on-one conversation than a shared experience really calls for. It’s like being at a party, surrounded by strangers and friends alike, but constantly looking for a chance to take that one person aside for a brief moment alone. There is so much humanity in intimate moments like these, and in today’s constantly-connected environment, they are more vital to us than ever. Saba is well aware of this feeling, and for creating an album that gives so much, all he asks is for his music to be received with the proper space and care. Even at the album’s official listening party in Noble Square the night before the release, all guests were treated to a pair of noise-cancelling headphones rather than the typical loudspeaker setup. I still remember the space I was in when “PROM / KING” began, and even without reading Saba’s tweet before listening, I found myself thankful to be alone in that moment.
“PROM / KING” is a masterclass of emotional journalism. It’s the centerpiece of the album that takes everything we’ve heard up to this point, and imbues all of its perspectives, textures, and characters into one succinct, multi-layered, and deeply affecting story. The first time I heard it, when it faded to a close after nearly eight emotionally intense and significant minutes, I could feel that we had just inched one step closer to the apex of what songwriting- storytelling set to beats and articulated through melody and rhyme- can accomplish. Like the best oners, a term that describes a long and intricate scene in a film that is shot, or disguised to appear to be shot, in one fluid take, it isn’t until near the end that you realize the enormity of what is unfolding.
“PROM / KING” begins with a flashback to Saba’s senior year of high school, and the events that crystalized an eternal bond between him and his cousin Walt. The story is told with equal skill and charm, as well as the happy/sad feeling that nostalgia brings. It has all the hallmarks of a coming-of-age moment: a prom request that isn’t reciprocated, risky choices made out of wanting to get laid, an altercation at an after-party, a reunion of family, and so much more. It’s the small details, like calling the corsage the croissant, or pretending to send a text when alone at a party, that put you in Saba’s shoes as an insecure, searching teen. And it’s in his cousin Walter that he finds a true companion and collaborator in music and life. After seven deeply personal and introspective songs about Saba, we are starting to get to know Walt. The most effecting aspect of this song is that with every detail about Walt that is revealed- his dimpled smile, his basketball dreams, his overprotective nature- we become more invested, and the more invested we become, the more it hurts to know what is coming. All of a sudden, theMIND’s “I don’t need nobody new to miss” makes so much sense in a way it didn’t just minutes before.
The song begins with a small heartbreak and ends with a crash collision. What is so tragic is that despite Saba’s best efforts (including the John Walt Foundation made in his honor), Walt will now primarily be known for his death, the way so many young black men are, whether their names are put on record or not. That may be why, for all seven-and-a-half minutes of beautifully and heartbreakingly rendered details on “PROM / KING”, the one thing we don’t actually get spelled out for us is Walt’s death, as the song ends with a shadowy recording of Walt’s voice. He sings,
“Just another day in the ghetto
Oh, the streets bring sorrow
Can’t get out today with their schedule
I just hope I make it ‘til tomorrow”
The last line rings and rings, like a telephone call to no one. Spoken from a man whose tomorrows were all cut short, this moment is devastating, haunting, and profoundly moving. It’s enormously empowering for Walt to have the final say in this song. It almost leads you to believe that in some other world, he never got on that train, or got in that fight, and somehow lived through it all. It makes it all feel a bit like a dream.
In real life, however, Walt was no stranger to the lurking presence of death, and seemed to comprehend his reality and environment well enough to know that simply hoping for a tomorrow wouldn’t be enough to make it there every time. Five minutes into “PROM / KING”, a brush-up with death, months before his eventual murder, is detailed. On a cross country phone call with Saba in California, Walt horrifically recounts getting shot at by total strangers. Deeply frightened and searching for logic, Saba questions what he possibly could have done, whose line he must have crossed, to be met with a hail of gunfire on the highway in broad daylight. However, it quickly dawns on him that it doesn’t really matter; that where he’s from, there doesn’t always have to be a “reason” for something like this to happen. Neither of them were safe from the random nature of violence in their hometown. It is then, under the crushing and inescapable weight of helplessness, that Saba says,
“Sometimes I fucking hate Chicago cuz I hate this feeling”
The beat continues, the story continues unfolding, but everything is different after this line. In an album filled with uncompromised honesty and reflection, this sentiment, performed with tangible defeat, cuts deepest. Perhaps its impact is felt most when considering Saba’s larger body of work, most specifically the song most know him for. At this point, it’s fair to assume almost everyone has heard Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book, and with that, heard Saba’s voice, whether they realize it or not. Odds are, you’ve sung in unison with his voice on the chorus of the album’s first single “Angels”. The chorus goes:
“They was talkin ‘Woo this do wap da bam’.
City so damn great I feel like Alexand.
Wear your halo like a hat, that’s like the latest fashion
I got angels all around me, they keep me surrounded”
The power of most choruses comes from their universality. A great chorus is one that could be sung by anyone, regardless of circumstance and geography. However, the magic of this chorus is that there’s no mistaking which city is being referenced, yet it’s no less inclusive. Chicago is painted on this song as a real city with problems, but one that stands a little bolder than any other. Even being associated with the city is enough to make one feel like Alexander The Great: an invincible, mythic figure capable of wonders. The chorus’ last line both reinforces this idea- the surrounding of supernatural forces that propel one forward- while also hinting at the reality of what it is to live there.
If you are from a certain part of this city, you know angels. More pointedly, you know death, and the promise of an afterlife that comes with it. As sung on “BUSY / SIRENS”, you know the sight of someone “lyin’ where the angels lay”, and how that is so often the reason for hearing “sirens on the way”. One of the most beautifully rendered aspects of Saba’s writing is his duality of perspective: his way of reflecting the harsh truths and emotional weight of the most damning elements of life that are brutally unfair and unjust, while also fighting to perceive these things as building blocks to a more enlightened way of life. That is why his voice, particularly when rapping about Chicago, is so essential. On “CALLIGRAPHY”, Saba details an obituary, undoubtedly Walt’s, that hangs by the dresser in his bedroom. This memorial, purposefully hung in a place where it could be seen at the beginning of each day, is likely his way of summoning the angels he needs for guidance and strength to continue to live his life in a way that is purposeful, beautiful and true.
Angels appear often throughout CARE FOR ME, and Saba raps from the perspective of one of these angels on the album’s closer “HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME”. After the closing lines in “PROM / KING”, there is silence. We are, for a moment, allowed to breathe, to recalibrate, to mourn. What comes next is a faint and hazy stroke of color, which stands out from the greys of everything that came before. We hear a beautiful melody of bells, and before long, a windup of harp strings. It’s not unlike the very final moments of Kid A, the silence and blissful panorama that follow the album’s closing line “and I will see you in the next life”. These choices in instrumentation and arrangement that open CARE FOR ME’s final song clue us in that we are no longer in Saba’s shoes, but in Walter’s, who has passed on to the other side.
In “HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME”, Walter sees the events after his death unfold, but more specifically, sees all of the people his death has impacted, from the paramedic who tries to revive him, to the friends he desperately wants to touch to convince them, and himself, that he’s still there. I’d imagine of all tracks on the album, this one was the most significant to Saba to get right. It’s filled with truths he desperately wants to believe- that Walter didn’t die for nothing, that he’s not really gone at all, that he’s in a truly better place now- and by putting it down on wax, he in a way makes it real. That is one of the many powers of making a record: it validates.
CARE FOR ME is a record filled with wisdom, with lessons learned and battles persisted. It understands the complex and messy truths of losing someone- how it’s possible for a loss to both push you forward and push you back at the exact same time. It’s extremely human in that way, which is why it is already being hailed with the accolades it has received. But more importantly, it already feels like the kind of record that will be tuned to by many in times of need, the kind that changes the course of lives. On “FIGHTER”, Saba ends the second verse from the perspective of a girlfriend who, during an argument, says “I know you think you listenin’, but you just waitin’ to talk.” CARE FOR ME is one of those albums that hears you while speaking to you. Through these recorded stories, we project our own memories, our own trials, our own environments and loved ones. All of us are constantly in a state of trying to get better, to be happy, to make the most of our lives, and like all of us, this album isn’t the product of having overcome in the past tense. Life’s not simple like that, and neither is this record. It’s all about the process of overcoming.
On February 9, 2017, a few hundred fans in Chicago braved the winter cold to watch Noname perform. In looking back, I cannot believe she actually performed that night, holding in the pain in her heart for her fallen friend. That friend of course was John Walt, who, as fate would have it, was planning on performing with her at that very show. I had never heard of John Walt before that night. For all purposes, to me, he would have been just another victim of a senseless murder, in a city known for senseless murders. But through that show, he became so much more. Although I didn’t know it coming in, that night was, in a sense, his vigil.
“Shadow Man”, the last song of her set, opens with the following words:
“How do you see me?
How do you love me?
How do you remember me?
Saba came out to perform his verse on the song, which was written for his uncle: a man who, after being released from years in prison, died in his sleep. He was twenty years old when he recorded this verse, and two years later, would be performing it about his cousin just one night after his murder. At the song’s end, Saba and Noname came together at center stage, arms wrapped around one another, peering out at all of us in the crowd. I can’t help but wonder how it all felt in that moment, looking out at of us strangers gathered together. After all, they had likely envisioned that night to be one of the best of their young lives. All I know is what I felt being in that room as the lights went up. I felt I had just been a part of something rare in its humanness. I felt a community that had just grown a little more resilient through the bravery of artists we considered our own. It was the feeling of seeing the barely-there rainbow after a storm; a glow in place of shadow. It felt a lot like healing.
I can’t shake how surreal it was that that concert happened on that night, in this city. We all left the show with someone new to miss, but more than that, with a new life to remember and celebrate. It was the music of this city that brought us all together, that made this possible. As we stepped out into the cold Chicago air, we could all feel it: there was heaven all around us.
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