How Saba Stopped Caring And Made His Masterpiece

We Talk to The Chicago Rapper About ‘CARE FOR ME’

On September 27th 2018 » By Michael Penn II

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This month, Vinyl Me, Please Rap & Hip Hop is featuring CARE FOR ME, Saba’s early 2018 album. You can sign up to receive our exclusive edition of the album right here.

Below, you can read an interview with Saba. We sent our staff writer, Michael Penn II, to interview him in his studio space in Chicago the day after he played a triumphant set at Pitchfork Festival, and they covered everything from chicken spots to the death that inspired the album, to how he stopped caring and made one of the year’s best albums.

Allow my indulgence in a cliché: Chicago, a Friday overcast, the sun occasionally creeping past the clouds to drench Union Park in warmth. It’s another Pitchfork Festival, the year 2018, making this cliché even more irresistible: Saba, born Tahj Malik Chandler, has just given the Red Stage his only Chicago performance in support of the CARE FOR ME album that’s piqued the interest of nearly every critic with a year-end list while galvanizing the new Chicago renaissance once again. You know DAM DAM was on the tables, Daoud and Dae Dae on the keys and synths, and the late John Walt posted as an angel somewhere in the outfield. Saba took us to his grandmama house: a wooden replica of her kitchen as the backdrop, like the one off Austin on the Green Line. (Saba’s grandfather was present on his medical scooter alongside many other family members; grandma, unfortunately, had to work.) It looks like the same kitchen where Saba fondly remembers playing second-in-command to his uncle, a budding chef, soul food on the stove. Here’s the kicker, and it’s not even corny: As the huddled masses soaked in the overcast weather, somewhere in the final 15 minutes of this historic communion of pain and perseverance, the grey surrendered to the sun. As a color of limbo, the space between black and white, there was no middle ground remaining once all that “cute shit’s out the window!” The crowd ignited, the homies stormed the stage, and some West Side niggas went indubitably crazy.

You can watch Saba’s set above.

The perfection of the sun breaking up the bleak, the way CARE FOR ME broke up his grief over Walt’s passing, wasn’t lost on Saba at all; he hoped for that shit. I meet him the day after his Pitchfork set at the studio, which was jammed up for 20 minutes. When we finally enter, we’re met with various baseline vices strewn about the end table: some Miller High Lifes, a Bombay Sapphire bottle, a lil water, a lil weed. I smirk, knowing Saba — like me — remains one of the most sober souls on the face of the Earth. As long as I’ve known him, that was never his wave; he merely looks… sleepy. There’s a BBC red trucker hat tucked on his forehead, a single gold chain bordering his blue/red-striped Fat Tiger shirt with some tapered red/white-striped pants. The introversion seeps from his gentle, low register; sometimes he looks down when he thinks, but he’s thinking really hard and he definitely hears you. He mentions how he’s become more of a gearhead since our last encounter, motioning to his Apollo interface as he recounts how the Auto-Tune running through Ableton — a first-time tour addition — managed to only crash in Utah. (Thus, it wasn’t that big of a deal.)

With more pieces come more opportunities to have a live show go wrong, but they’ve gone so right these days: sustainable, independent, impactful. This year, Saba toured CARE FOR ME with his brother, Joseph Chilliams, and cousin, Jean Deaux. Pivot Gang co-founder Frsh Waters came along as well, fresh off a four-year prison stint, extending the family affair as a victory lap. Yet these victories come with the inevitable burnout from a life on autopilot. The work-life balance is still a process for Saba: most of his family are born-and-raised Chicagoans, youthful and elderly, who wanna support the Saba cause without losing Malik in the process. And that process has been rolling since the release of 2014’s ComfortZone. It was Saba’s first extended stay in artistic limbo: a new manager, no next single, no next step.

“I was hella stressed, I was tryna figure it out, essentially,” Saba says. “I knew ComfortZone had did well, I wanted it to do even better, and it had been a year later and I was still focused on pushin’ that and tryna get it to do better. And a year had passed and I hadn’t really had any new music. I was workin’ on a buncha shit, but nothing felt like ‘This is what’s next, this is what I’m about to drop.’ It was just, like, busy shit, like, stay active.”

After meeting producer Phoelix and locking in for 2016’s fantastic Bucket List Project, as well as producing on Noname’s critically acclaimed debut Telefone, Saba found it again, the hunger and self-confidence that kept him passionate as the ceilings refused to cave in. He toured the entire 2017 away, planning to drop a follow-up just focused on raps and features, the type of project that would get GETCOMFORTable-era Saba geeked up to be the best in the world. Then, on Wednesday, February 8, 2017, Walter Long Jr. got killed for a coat, fatally stabbed in an altercation on the Green Line L headed back to the West Side. Time faded, back to nothing, innocence dissolved. After ceaseless touring met its end, and the first John Walt Day filled the House of Blues to the brim, it was time to finally deal with it all.

CARE FOR ME is the most intense, isolated 41 minutes Saba’s ever released; it was crafted in the same manner, with Pivot producers Dae Dae and Daoud working intently with Saba to craft the sound. The foundation for their friendship was primed by endless Pivot Gang summers at Dae Dae’s house in Chicago: the kind where you’re eatin’ good, bakin’ each other, growin’ stronger as a unit before anything good gets done in a working environment. After several connections through other Chicago groups, managers and friends, Dae Dae and Daoud linked in Oakland for the initial Bucket List sessions, later resorting to working over email in post-production. Once last year’s touring schedule cleared out, Saba and Dae Dae took several extended stays on the five-beats-a-day diet at Daoud’s Oakland home; these sessions were the blueprint for the signature CARE FOR ME sound. (“HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME” was the second beat from the trio’s initial sessions.) To this day, Saba considers Dae Dae one of the best percussionists he’s ever heard, and Daoud one of the best with melodies. Together, the trio completed CARE FOR ME in about three months time, every vocal take and instrument recorded from the ground up. Its sonic and thematic cohesion is best attributed to some beats being literally days apart from each other, matched up via key and tempo on a whiteboard to assist in sequencing. No one had access to the music but the starting three: not the managers, not even the session musicians who heard the final drafts when the public did.

The final result is a stunning meditation on grief, survival and growth. The bright palettes of vibrant optimism streaked across much of his earlier works are slathered in greys and blues. It’s neither easy nor palatable, but personal and unafraid. We’re not dealing with any superhero, we’re dealing with Tahj Malik Chandler: a man who’s spent several years teetering from stardom in his city into the national spotlight, losing his stride, finding it again and losing it once more when he lost his cousin. Saba’s finally making the music he’s dreamt of: the rapping is precise and direct, the melodies are piercing and catchy and the weight of every bottled emotion lands until it shatters the heart. Not to mention how it’s so West Side, the traces of his familial importance are left like Remus crumbs: his grandmama’s splotchy grass plot, memories of childhood conflicts and getback, how Walter finessed him a prom date and asked for some extra bread for a prom suit. The detail would suggest several agonizing months of laborious writing, editing, synthesis… but none of it was by design. It was a tribute for a fallen link in the bloodline, a therapeutic breath in a fucked-up time.

Not to mention, Saba Pivot, LLC is still the only label on the barcode. With records like “GREY” and “LOGOUT” standing as firm indictments of the music industrial powers that be, I went from waiting for Saba’s breakthrough moment to wondering how close he even wants to get to the machine.

“You know you want your music to touch millions, and you wanna have the same amount of power and influence that a lot of these people have, but you don’t wanna have to do the corny shit,” Saba says. “You wanna just skip that altogether. And I think that’s the conflict as an artist: just knowing when to sacrifice and knowing what you could do. Cuz ideally, you would sacrifice nothin’; you would just do what you do. And I think, honestly, that’s what we been doin’ so far. And to have made it even this far is like… it’s impressive, but it’s still that feeling of wanting to get to the next level from where you are.”

“I was moreso making the album for me. And this was the first time that I had ever really made music like that.”

Saba

He’s seen every side of it — his independent friends wanna be signed, his signed friends wanna be independent — but for someone so submerged in limbo so many times over, there’s a quiet power in keeping everything contained to the team while foregoing the system and the off chance for a bigger public moment. Imagine CARE FOR ME compromised by a forced lead single, clogged by label-mandated features and placements… the Pivot boys bet on themselves and trusted the art to speak for itself. Now, without hesitation or a complicated rollout, Saba returned to us with his most mature album to date, his attempt at the classic conversation via the 10-song format.

CARE FOR ME was the first album that I made where I didn’t… care when I was making it,” Saba says, fully aware of the irony. “I didn’t care what it would be received as, and I was moreso making the album for me. And this was the first time that I had ever really made music like that. I made a buncha songs like that that I never put out and just kept to myself, but to do a whole album like that and then release it was a different experience. There was no conscious thoughts of [singles and features], it was just a therapy session with myself. There’s the way to play the game business-wise, and even creatively, there’s a way to play the game, and on CARE FOR ME, I didn’t really care enough to play the game. I wasn’t tryna make anybody happy with the music. I think it is a hard listen a lotta times, it’s not, like, you’re just playin’ it back like ‘Damn, this shit is incredible!’ But I think that’s what makes the shit more honest, you know? Just being able to pour the shit out.

“You see how, even though it’s such a personal and individual experience to my life, it’s also a very a universal concept, and I think that that’s what it took to get that. I always wanted to make something that was relatable, something that people could just listen and be like ‘I feel that.’ Sometimes as an artist, you might try to do that and you might broaden your message — lemme broaden it so everybody can relate to it! — but I think the opposite is what makes people relate to it: when you’re like ‘lemme be so specific to what I went through,’ and people are like ‘holy shit… how did you know?’”

For Saba, CARE FOR ME didn’t “feel real” until it hit the street and the touring began. Preliminary concerns about the sadder, slower material adapting to a live format slowly dissipated once the stories the trio held so close to the heart began impacting the fans with the same magic that birthed it all. It’s an opportunity to turn the rap show into a sacred space, even when the world becomes far too inquisitive about the realities of not being able to get out of bed. These aren’t just stories to an 808, they’re field notes from the fallout. The family element gets to Saba more than anything; he’s very concerned with his thoughts not being taken the wrong way. Consider: what’s a spare invasive tweet to wondering what Walter’s mom will think about “PROM / KING” when she hears it? Will the Chandlers be looking at a different Malik than the one they raised, forever changed by his trauma even as he fights to grow from it?

On the question of faith: for all the Godly imagery on CARE FOR ME — floating into Heaven, Jesus parallels — does Saba believe in a higher power?

“I think, like the rest of everything else in life, the shit is case-by-case, the shit is individual,” Saba says. “I think your beliefs strongly affect what will happen. I think the universe is too big of a thing and a concept for the book version of Heaven to be… real, I guess? For the cloudy shit, cuz clouds is not even really that high; I fly in clouds all the time. It’s just so much shit out there, I don’t really know what I think happens when you die, but I do believe it is a peaceful thing. The concept of God: I don’t really know what it is, but I feel it. It could just be a feeling, but knowing that and having faith in something, anything, it could be the difference of life and death. Sometimes when you sick, all you need is faith. Especially pursuing your dream career: to follow your dreams, it takes a lotta faith to do that.”

These days, he’s unsure to what capacity his faith reaches; he doesn’t think much of it. (He believes in the consistency of Uncle Remus’s chicken, and believes more kids would eat their vegetables if mild sauce was poured all over them, but that’s for another time.) Once, as a youth in Bible study — where all the other kids his age were — his teacher told a story of the Old Testament where anyone who looks God in the eye will die. Perhaps he’s recalling Exodus 33:20, the same passage invoked defiantly by fellow collaborator Chance the Rapper at the end of “Acid Rain”: “And I still be askin’ God to show his face…” Scripture aside, a young Tahj Malik Chandler took the teacher up on the challenge: He daydreamed about what God looked like, trying so hard to envision it that an ambulance arrived to treat the panic attack he gave himself. (At publication, this may be the first time his family members will know the reason the ambulance came for him that day.)

While Saba won’t be in Chicago forever, he remains here to keep the family connection intact. He intends to continue traveling the world, never confusing his pride in being from Chicago for pride in being stuck in Chicago. The future is infinite and unknown, no matter the delayed gratification of critical success or a bullet from CPD. The latter, considering “SIRENS” among many other records, escapes my mind until I return to Union Park that Sunday afternoon. It’s the brightest day, the Blackest day, and Noname just ran her own Red Stage clinic while inviting everyone out to speak their truth to power. I find Saba in the crowd as faces of the new Chicago congregate for embraces, group photos, pulls of liquor.

I ask: “How do you take care of yourself when the world is tryna kill a Black man?”

When he addresses my concern, he reassures me that a shift in perspective may be the key I’m missing from my own sanctity.

“I try not to think of it that way,” Saba says. “I think where your [mind goes] and where you put your energy will just have you down a lotta times. I don’t watch [the videos or anything like that,] and I try to just focus on what I’m doing and focusing on positive shit. I don’t try to look at myself as a hunted being, you know? I see myself as a powerful figure making a difference; it’s easy when you just flip the narrative, when you change it and you see yourself that way. Obviously, we make ourselves aware of everything goin’ on, but I think it’s one thing to be aware and then another thing to give it your energy, cuz when you give it your energy, it can take you down and a lotta the shit’ll feel pointless if you’re doin’ it from that perspective. So I try to just be aware of everything, and then just, like, ‘OK, I know that, but now I’ma just do what the fuck I been doin’.’ And that’s… hopefully the answer to the question.”

Michael Penn II

Michael Penn II

Michael Penn II (aka CRASHprez) is a rapper and a Vinyl Me, Please staff writer. He's known for his Twitter fingers.

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