Saba's West Side Story Is One Worth Listening To
From poet to exploratory rapper, Saba could be the new voice of Chicago's West Side.
Photos by Bryan Lamb
“It’s go time! Y’all not acting like it’s go time,” Saba shouts to the people gathered backstage at North Coast Music Festival in Chicago's Union Park. He turns around with wide eyes, clapping loudly, in a moment of enthusiasm that seems uncharacteristic from the self-professed nerd and career quiet kid. After pacing the distance from his tent to the stage several times, he dips his head and trots up the stairs leading to the stage. As his band goes through sound check, he squints through the stage's backdrop at the slowly gathering crowd. His feet move up and down, fingertips nervously drumming against his microphone. He holds it tight to his chin. “PIVOT!” he yells, a smile crossing his face as he repeats his clique’s nickname in call and response. “PIVOT” the hundred or so in attendance for the set shout back.
That call and response has gotten louder and more on point in recent months as Saba’s name and that of the PIVOT crew—whose name is drawn from the idea of taking one step at a time—has grown. Today, he’s making his festival debut in front of an enthusiastic hometown crowd, not far from where he grew up.
I first saw Saba rocking an after-school program in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood about a year and a half earlier. Shortly thereafter, he popped up in a guest verse on “Everybody's Something” off of Chance The Rapper’s acclaimed mixtape, Acid Rap. That appearance paved a road to national prominence for the 20-year-old Saba, who continued the momentum by releasing his solo introduction, GetComfortable in January. His follow-up mixtape and true breakout project, ComfortZone, followed in July and further distinguished him in the crowded Chicago scene as an artist with a talent for careful wordplay and an ear for smooth instrumentation.
The culmination of four years of musical and poetic self-discovery, ComfortZone is quite literally a coming-of-age story in which Saba draws on personal experiences to contextualize broader social issues and explore the world around him. With an observant worldview and multi-dimensional delivery reminiscent of Kendrick Lamar as well as a creative musicality that falls in line with the kind of progressive hip-hop of Chicago contemporaries like Chance, Vic Mensa, and Mick Jenkins, Saba rejects some of the stereotypes that have been applied to kids from Chicago’s rougher neighborhoods like Austin, Englewood or Roseland. On “401k” he raps, “I was never street enough to grow up and be a thug/Because I went to school everyday/Went to school everyday learned shit don’t matter people shooting everyday.”
Saba, born Tahj Malik Chandler, grew up in Austin, on Chicago’s West Side. The middle of three children, he gravitated toward his older brother and his older brother’s friend group, who now make up the core of PIVOT. His father, a local R&B artist named Chandlar, often brought a young Saba to the studio with him (Saba’s father appears on the outro to ComfortZone, too). Austin is a tough neighborhood full of blank storefronts and without proper public high school, and it has racked up more homicides than any other district in the city since 2007. But Saba eschewed the gangs and violence of his surroundings in favor of books and music.
“With everything that’s going on in Chicago, I’m not on the corner,” Saba told me in an interview in late August. “But because of my perspective I can look down the street and look directly at it because it's right there. I’m just a nerd from the hood trying to make it. A lot of my songs, it’s like trying to speak from within but trying to also speak on what’s going on so everyone can relate or understand.”
Saba skipped two grades in elementary school and began high school at age 12, taking three buses to the suburb of Westchester to attend the private high school St. Joseph's. He graduated at 16 with a 3.5 GPA. He describes his time at St. Joseph’s as a period of being not quite comfortable within himself. A homebody and fan of anime and video games, he still keeps a low profile, although he’s become less reserved.
“I never really had friends my age, never had a best friend or no shit like that," he told me, shrugging his shoulders. "I was always just quiet, I probably only talked to like two people in high school. That was my comfort zone, and it wasn’t until 16 that I noticed it was working against me. I was the quiet kid in every room, so this project was my way to break out of that in a way.”
It was while in high school that Saba began thinking up the sounds, aesthetics and ideas that would become ComfortZone. But, as he puts it, he didn’t know the right music or people to make it happen then. It took the four years between Saba graduating high school at 16 and turning 20 for him to locate the musicians, producers and voices that he would need to accomplish what his mind had sketched out. He began frequenting the city’s downtown Loop district and found himself immersed in the poetry scene happening at after-school programs like YouMedia downtown and Young Chicago Authors (YCA) in trendy Wicker Park. Turned onto the events by friends around the city who regularly attended, Saba set out for the weekly meetings.
“Coming from the West Side, you kind of have to go get it yourself because you’ve got to leave the West Side,” said Saba. “That’s when I started getting followers, when I left the West Side. I went to Wicker [Park], and I didn’t even know it existed until I was like 18.”
At the creative, interpersonal open mics, he found his voice, as well as a community that was a sort of minor league for Chicago hip-hop acts like Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa, NoNameGypsy, and Lucki Eck$. With a focus on delivery, careful word association and thoughtful thematic aesthetics, both YCA and YouMedia greatly influenced the work of a slew of fresh talent. Saba credits the environment with helping to mold his rap style.
"It’s like you get to look at the faces of people when they hear your music, and you get to see what music is capable of and that’s when I felt like it was something I could do," he said. "I was seeing the results in real time.”
The poetry community also helped him step outside himself, offering a reminder of the power of words and furthering his understanding of the world outside of the West Side. The introductions made through poetry events led to incessant recording sessions in the basement of Saba’s grandparents' house, an unfinished space with walls plastered in magazine covers and articles where a good deal of new music from the burgeoning Chicago scene is recorded. Most recently, Saba helped Lucki Eck$ wrap up his latest project, Body High.
While the experiences traveling the city and experiencing new things showed Saba a new world, it also helped him refine his perspective on the neighborhood he called home. That West Side perspective is an important part of his music, and he in turn represents an important ideal for the West Side. The area is noted for dance movements like juke, footwork, and, most recently, bop, but its music has mostly been overshadowed by scenes in other parts of the city. There are few options for performance venues. Nonetheless, the last couple years have seen a growing West Side hip-hop movement, with artists like Z Money, Dally Auston and Sicko Mobb hoping to replicate the success of South Side artists like Chief Keef, King Louie, and Lil Durk, who attracted industry deals and national press. It's a trend that gives Saba hope.
“I really have never been happier to have been from here,” he told me. “To start dropping music and to see the reaction, I feel like we’re going to make the West Side. I may not do it singlehandedly, but it’s going to happen soon where the West Side is respected for musical talent. Lupe is from the West Side! It’s just cool to see that people are beginning to come around.”
ComfortZone is an exploration of the experience of growing up on Chicago’s West Side and the ramifications of being a young black male where Saba is from. On “Scum,” a song he professes to have written in minutes, he rhymes: “They kicked you out of your middle school,/said your work was pitiful/Mama's loan didn't get approved/So you got a gun, lookin' just like them/Cause whether cap and gown or cappin' down ya called scum.” As opposed to the abrasive boasts and violent clatter so popular in Chicago’s drill music, it’s a subtler worldview, formed through persistent observation, that seems years beyond Saba’s age.
“ComfortZone is my favorite album of the summer,” Kevin Coval, the YCA director, told me. “There are so many important records. Saba, like a lot of artists that come from Chicago have what Gwendolyn Brooks referred to as ‘verse journalism.’ I was surprised at how young he was when we met because his talent seemed past his age. He’s been going against his nature and speaking to a cultural movement, for better or for worse. Tragically, ComfortZone couldn’t have come at a better time.”
But, as much as ComfortZone is about the world around Saba, it’s also about a person learning to feel right within himself. It’s a reminder that feeling comfortable is a state of mind and being. When Saba raps: “I’m sorry for the me time/I just had to get my mind right/so now we can move on right?” on the lead in on “TimeZone,” you can feel that quiet, soft-spoken preteen freshman, not quite settled into himself until he returns at the end of the second verse, more confident and self-assured, “feelin' like the motherfuckin' GOAT.” On “United Center,” Saba reflects on the complexity of feeling pride in where he grew up while confronting the area’s problems.
In Union Park, just a few hundred yards from the iconic stadium that gives that song its title, Saba steps onto the stage as the first notes of “Butter,” featuring Eryn Allen Kane, come through the speakers. Instantly, the uneasy nervousness that existed just minutes prior falls away, and Saba becomes animated, kicking, bouncing, and high stepping his way across the stage as he unleashes his personal bars, perfectly at ease in the moment. After playing through the medley of “Butter” and “Burnout,” he takes a break. “Hi, I’m Saba,” he says, peering out at the crowd and providing an introduction for what's about to come. “And I’m from the West Side.”
Jake Krzeczowski is a writer living in Chicago. He's on Twitter - @JakeKrez