Hip-hop is aspirational by its very nature, and you’d be hard pressed to find a young rapper who hasn’t talked about a car they don’t yet own or a career milestone they have not yet reached with a degree of unjustified certainty.
But when Chicago MC Saba rapped about touring England on ‘Burnout’, the second track from his 2014 debut ‘ComfortZone’, it wasn’t just the wordsmith putting another item on his wish list, it was him setting a concrete goal that he’s already achieved (back in 2016 opening for with Jazz Cartier), and is set to once again with his first European headlining tour. But for the rapper/producer, hitting the road overseas is just another milestone in a career of creating and then conquering whatever his mind puts before him.
“Everything I am and have been able to accomplish and will accomplish has been based on the idea of speaking some shit into existence,” Saba says. “I try to put that in the music just so people realise how important that is. Like it’s not rocket science, it’s not anything crazy – he doesn’t have a huge deal or anything, he’s just speaking shit into existence.”
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That level of self-actualization helped him to ‘ComfortZone’, a record full of lush production and smart, muscular raps about his life in Austin, a neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side that has many of the same problems as the city’s notorious South Side but hasn’t become an object of perverse cultural fascination. His follow-up, 2016’s ‘Bucket List Project’, expands on similar sonic and thematic ideas while playing with the concept of the bucket list and the goals that truly matter to us when we look at the big picture. While the idea manifests itself as a heady, existential journey underscored by rich jazz chords and knotty harmonies, its roots are firmly grounded in Saba’s everyday reality.
“The initial thought came from a car that I was in at the time. Sometimes it was day-to-day; maybe it’ll start, maybe it won’t,” he explains. “And they call that a ‘bucket,’ so that word kept coming up in a lot of the music I was writing and it became a completely new thing for me where I was starting to write about bucket lists and bucket boys. Just flipping that word in a bunch of different ways, and it came from that random thing, but it turned into something much bigger than that.”
The record is both broad and deep; tracks like ‘Stoney’ and ‘Church/Liquor Store’ with Noname are granular examinations of life in the Windy City, while ‘American Hypnosis’ is a skewering of the United States’ failed power structures complete with an interpolation of Langston Hughes’ I, Too. The record’s many concepts are tied together by a series of voicemails from Saba’s family, friends, and fans (including frequent collaborator Chance the Rapper and idol Lupe Fiasco, as well as his father and girlfriend) talking about what they have on their respective bucket lists.
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In the time since ‘Bucket List Project’ dropped Saba has kept busy both in and out of the studio. He’s released a handful of singles, including ‘Where Ideas Sing’, a song about Chicago’s creative power so joyous and galvanizing that Apple chose to put the title on their latest store in the city. On a more solemn note he’s also helped to organize John Walt Day, a celebration of his cousin and fellow Pivot Gang rapper John Walt, who was murdered in February. He says the goal is for the event to become an annual tradition, and given his gift for turning words into action it seems like a certainty.
As one of the most visible members of Chicago’s nascent rap renaissance he also sees a role for himself and his peers in helping the city’s aspiring young artists get a foothold in the scene and keep eyes and ears permanently fixed on his hometown.
“Not just us but everybody who becomes that influencer or makes it through that door, you know once you get there you’ve got to let somebody else in,” Saba says. “You’ve got to keep that going and that’s what I think changes the reality of a lot of people around you or people who aspire to be like you. Success in hip-hop is very fruitful right now, but it’s still a very early stage for Chicago hip-hop.”
In between these major projects and an international tour he’s also found time to begin crafting the follow-up to ‘Bucket List’, though it’s so early I the process he’s hesitant to share any details. One thing is certain though, it won’t be a rehash of his last record, as Saba firmly believes an artist should always be trying something completely different. While he acknowledges there could be more to mine from the bucket list concept, his focus is fully on the future, not a redux of the past. “I don’t even have that car any more,” he says with a laugh.
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'Bucket List Project' is out now. For full details of Saba's upcoming European tour click HERE.
Words: Grant Rindner
Photography: Tom Vin
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