To describe Saba as wise beyond his years would be doing him a disservice. The young Chicago rapper-producer is calculated down to the letter and approaches his craft with the precision of an artist boasting twice his resume. In an era when hip-hop artists are celebrated for musical mass production, his painstaking approach to his sophomore album Care For Me is refreshing. His style and attention to detail make him one of the most exciting performers at this year’s Made in America festival.
A brief glimpse into Saba’s backstory suggests this is the artist he was meant to be. At age 9, he pieced together a studio in his grandparents’ basement–the same one he and his Pivot Gang collective would record in years later. At 12, he had already enrolled in high school and by 17 he’d both started and left college in pursuit of the artistic passions he carried with him since childhood.
A self-proclaimed nerd, Saba fluently chronicles both the light and dark sides of Austin, the neighborhood that raised him on the west side of Chicago. Frequently overlooked by hip-hop in favor of the city’s more storied South Side, Saba comes from a community that saw more homicides between 2007 and 2016 than any other section of the city. That sense of tragedy became all too real for him following the murder of his best friend, cousin, and collaborator Walt, which prompted him to write the song, “Prom/King.”
He’s one of the latest in a recent influx of young hip-hop talent from the windy city but manages to stand out amongst marquee names like Noname, Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa and Chief Keef, with a style that’s all his own. From the moment you press play on a track like, “Grey,” it’s clear his verses have no room for filler bars or IG caption fodder. If he wrote it, then the line isn’t just there to be heard, but to be listened to.
Even more impressive than what Saba says is how he chooses to say it. His rhyme schemes are both complex and elusive, a likely product of his fandom for legendary Midwest predecessors like Bone Thugz and Harmony and Lupe Fiasco. Each verse challenges listeners to keep pace with his lyrical acrobatics as he jumps back and forth between calming vocal melodies and surgically descriptive metaphors. At times he sounds like multiple artists on a single track.
Saba has the trappings of an artist with true staying power. His sets carry a gravitational pull; you’re drawn into a world of his design as he effortlessly channels the strength of his writing into his flair for performing. With each successive song, it feels like you’re getting a better, more thorough, understanding of his city, his neighborhood, and his life. If you’re at Made in America this Labor Day Weekend, be sure to catch a glimpse of his story that’s undoubtedly only in its opening act.