Chicago rappers all have the gift of introspection. Common, Kanye, Mick Jenkins and Noname must have all looked into that giant metal bean and seen the inner depths of their souls.
Saba is taking this to new heights. Listening to this album feels like flipping through his black leather-bound journal, a live-band playing along in the background, his thoughts laid bare on the page. It’s impossible to turn away.
The albums running theme is family and loss. Like a collection of intricately done sketches, each song is something to marvel at. Saba is in mourning and this is his catharsis. For him and for us too.
In 2017, Saba’s cousin, John Walt, was stabbed to death. They and other friends formed PIVOTGang, a collective fronted by Saba. The significance of this event is visible throughout the entire album.
On the opening track “BUSY/SIRENS”, Saba marinates in his loneliness. He doesn’t complain about it but, rather, discerns it’s source. He wants it to change while accepting that it is a part of who he is. TheMind puts it succinctly when he says:
Survivor’s remorse is the motif for the second half of “BUSY/SIRENS”. Walt is on the floor bleeding to death and there’s nothing Saba can do about it.
I jumped to conclusions when I first heard the chorus to “BROKEN GIRLS”. At first, I thought Saba was romanticising mental illness. Using female pain as a stepping stone, as men have always done. It isn’t though. Saba critiques his feelings for the partners he’s had in the past. Instead of an ego trip, he gives us ego death.
This whole time, been obsessed, being sad
She was my, quick escape, made me forget
Hear her speak, see her weak, made me feel big
“LIFE” is the closest thing this album has to a banger which is a good thing really because this album isn’t supposed to bang. On it, we feel his rage. His handwriting tears through the pages as he laments all the people he’s lost in the short life that he’s lived.
On “CALLIGRAPHY”, Saba confronts his demons. All the running he’s done hasn’t gotten him anywhere (exercise≠exorcise). Anywhere he wants to be, that is. Instead, he’s going to write them away. Not for us or his career but for himself and, in this age of constant and perpetual oversharing, maybe that’s what we all need.
I can’t get out of bed
I’m not mad at God
But I can’t get out of bed
(I’m going to end up talking about pretty much every song on this album but hey, you’ve made it this far)
“FIGHTER” is one of my favourite cuts of the album. Like a white flag flapping in the wind, Saba surrenders. He’s tired of fighting and that’s perfectly fine. He subverts toxic masculinity without cuffing his jeans or wearing pastel like the icon that he is. There’s honour in futility but only if you admit to it first.
This is also one of the best verses of 2018 tbh. I have to put the whole thing here.
Me and my girl just fought ’cause I talked before she could talk
She was tellin’ a story, I cut her off with some shit not ’bout
The same topic so she just stopped in the middle before the plot
Hit the rest of the car ride silent like “You always do this”
Like “You don’t value my thoughts, either that or you too damn stupid
To realize that if you don’t hear me out then I’ma feel muted
You say that you care, well show it, I’m not askin’ a lot
I know you think you listenin’ but you just waitin’ to talk”
The sun shines through on the next cut, “SMILE”. He channels his inner Aminé and exchanges gloom for a warm dose of nostalgia. Family is central to Saba and it shows.
Warmer outside and safe ol’ playground, grandma payroll cut, yeah
Whenever I’m trying to do anything to the best of my capabilities, I imagine someone important to me watching because their imaginary approval matters more than my own. “LOGOUT” encapsulates this by showing the weight we give to our virtual identities. Nothing we do matters if no-one is there to see it. It’s like the philosophical cliché “if a tree falls in the forest and no-one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”
Ain’t no beauty in the absence of broadcastin’ to your followers
I’m a total sucker for hip-hop songs that double as stories. Immortal Techniques “Dance with the Devil” or Ab-Soul’s “Book of Soul” being prime examples. When rappers strip away the metaphors and get intimate, shivers run through my body. “PROM/KING” is this and more. I won’t do it any justice by writing about it, so in the immortal words of Frank Ocean ‘here’s what I think about music and journalism: The most important thing is to just press play’.
“HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME” is the perfect close to the album. On the first track, he imagines his cousin’s lifeless body on the floor, sirens wailing in the distance. Saba paints the ensuing chaos on this song. We can hear the hospital bed as it rattles through the hospital halls, the rhythmic beep of life-support machines, flowers on his bedside, the glint of the Grim Reapers scythe as he hovers away.
It’s alright though, Saba concludes. His soul is in a better place.