SABA Doesn’t Miss
Chicago hosts one of the most iconic St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in the country, dying their eponymous river green for the occasion. The pandemic altered the way Chicagoans celebrated the holiday, and the day proved to be a celebration for the music scene as one of Chicago’s best independent artists released two singles in music video format on the 17th. Last Wednesday, Chicago-born rapper Saba released two new singles, “Ziplock” and “Rich Don’t Stop” on Youtube, now available on all major streaming services, and they prove that Saba doesn’t miss.
As a Chicago native myself, I have been following Saba closely since the release of his 2016 album Bucket List Project, a project that made a huge splash in the Chicago music ecosystem at the time. Along with cohorts Noname, Smino, Mick Jenkins, and Chance the Rapper, Saba injected a scene once dominated by hard-edged drill with jazz-inflected introspective compositions that forced the listener to absorb the gravity of their messaging. His follow-up project, CARE FOR ME, was one of the most grief-filled and self-aware hip-hop projects in the past several years. I was not the only one to notice Saba’s dedication and skill: Saba was the headlining act of WIUX’s 2019 Culture Shock Festival.
The music video for the batch of new singles finds Saba sitting and rapping on a picturesque rooftop. The architecture of the videos harkens imagery of M.C. Escher and Pink Floyd’s Animals, draped in La La Land glitz and glamour. Throughout the video, the only figure is Saba, spitting in solitude among the landscape. While COVID guidelines certainly played a role in the video’s content, it fits well into Saba’s image. Having spoken candidly about the struggles and pathways of being an independent artist, this video serves as a triumph for Saba in celebration of his liberated status.
Musically, the singles are revelatory in nature, with Saba showing listeners another dimension to the motivations behind his artistry. “Ziplock” opens with a warped piano sample, creating an up-tempo dance groove that is disrupted by thick soupy bass and downtempo drum programming. Each verse delivers a place central to Saba’s development as an artist, from West Oakland to the Bronx, and he details the come up from broke to being in his bag (“and it ain’t a ziplock”). The reverberant chorus finds Saba highlighting the intersection of the dangers of music stardom and policing attitudes towards Black hip-hop artists, and it doubles down on his grit and willingness to put himself on the line for his art.
The B-side single, “Rich Don’t Stop,” appears on the surface to be another entry into the “hustle-hop” category of hip-hop, where artists like J. Cole, Logic, and Drake talk about their come-up from the bottom to the top of the game. The genre glorifies the grind and strives to be vaguely motivational, though it comes off as self-serving more often than not. Saba dodges this narrow characterization, and the lyrics reflect more of a nuanced approach than several of his contemporaries. While most “hustle-hop” songs discuss the grind in an insular fashion, Saba shows the context of his work, and the necessity to succeed when facing pressures of violence, crime, and more. The bars of “Rich Don’t Stop” are conscious, animated, and delivered with the urgency that they aim to illustrate. While the instrumental can seem one-dimensional at times, closer listens show production not defined by samples, but rather adorned with them, hung like tapestries to fill out the environment of the single.
These singles emphasize that Saba is one of the most exciting and talented wordsmiths in hip-hop. His excitement does not come from in-your-face braggadocio, but through his concise penmanship and nuanced production. If these tracks are signals of an upcoming full-length studio project, then there is little doubt that Saba will miss.