A pin on Saba’s beanie reads “Rarer Than Ever,” and he points to it when I ask him about his favorite Bay Area rapper (Lil B the Based God, of course). We’re sitting in a tiny room at Leo’s, an Oakland club that’s sold out for tonight’s show. It’s been a long month for Saba. Tonight culminates his first national tour headlined by Pro Era’s Kirk Knight and Chicago’s lyrically poignant Mick Jenkins.
Saba opened alongside fellow Chicagoan Noname Gypsy, who both emerged from their city’s robust and competitive rap scene and were featured on their friend Chance the Rapper’s breakout album, Acid Rap.
As a shy kid growing up on Chicago’s West Side, Saba gravitated towards music early — his father is a singer whose soulful vocals are featured in one of Saba’s tracks. But it was Saba’s brother who introduced him to hip hop when he was nine. “[My brother] played “Notorious Thugs” by Bone Thugs and Biggie, and I looped it for like 17 hours,” Saba said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “That was the year when I was like ‘yup I’m going to be a rapper.’”
When he graduated from high school at 16 years old, Saba embarked on a project to transform from the kid in the room who didn’t say anything to the kid in the room everyone was listening to. He had taken a couple years of piano, but he was persistently shy — to the point where it was detrimental to his relationships. He saw he needed to grow, both musically and personally, to make it as a rapper.
He started hanging around Chicago’s youth open mic nights where he met Chance, Noname, Jenkins and the rest of the scene he now sees as family. Three years of work culminated in his sophomore mixtape, candidly titled ComfortZone.
“[Rapping] is actually how I became talkative,” he tells me.
Saba does the majority of his own production, pairing sincere, playful raps with lush, churchy beats to instill a sense of breezy experimentation. He’s emerging with a clear style and his songs reflect the complexity of the pride he feels for Chicago.
“In Chicago there’s a lot of negative energy going on,” Saba says. “I never wanted to be that sad-ass rapper. But you know at the same time, I want to be as honest as possible.”
ComfortZone is about self acceptance, releasing insecurities and recognizing hope amid violence. A lofty, uplifting tone caresses raw, thoughtful lyrics that make his music enchanting and relatable. As Saba put it, “to let everyone know I’m telling this not for you to be sad and depressed, but because it’s possible to do something about it.”
He captures the duality of emotions in his track “Scum,” in which he comments on the outside perception of his community, “‘cause whether cap and gown or cappin’ down ya called scum.” Saba says the Chicago rap scene is at the healthiest he’s seen it, namely because of how supportive his peers are — regardless of the different directions they’re going in musically. Saba doesn’t sound like Chief Keef or Kanye, but he doesn’t need to. That’s what makes a good hip-hop culture — it’s poetry with a unique, different flow.
Saba’s shyness may always pervade his identity, but it seems to have transformed into a likable humbleness. During our interview, we hear the DJ drop Andy Milonakis and Lil B’s “Hoe’s on my dick.” Saba starts to laugh and pauses to point out, “That’s hilarious.”
We finish talking and Saba runs down to the crowd, elated to catch the end of Noname’s performance. As he embraces friends and fans in the crowd, I can only imagine that thousands of miles away from his comfort zone, there’s a kid in Oakland about to hear Saba’s story and craft their own.
After Noname captures the (mostly male) crowd with her sweet vocals and smooth raps, Saba takes the stage. “Piiiiii-VOT!” he yells at the Oakland crowd, who shouts the name of his rap crew, PIVOT, right back at him. Saba seems comfortable on stage spitting poetry into the microphone. A self-determination and lyrical complexity make him appear mature for a 20 year old, especially one who spent most of his childhood trapped inside his head.
Contact Anya Schultz at [email protected]