After Devastating Loss, Saba Taught Me How to Immortalize Pain

In 2017, I lost one of my closest friends. In 2018, Saba helped me begin to heal.
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Saba, 2019

In 2017, I lost one of my closest friends. In the days following his death, I ignored the outside world, letting phone calls go to voicemail, lost in a haze of marijuana smoke and drifting further into denial. I didn’t shed a single tear until I heard his mother give his eulogy at the funeral, and then the grief hit me like a tidal wave.

He was a dysfunctional workaholic with a heart of gold beneath an ostensibly impenetrable exterior; the type to be painstakingly careful about who he let into his life. I was lucky enough to be one of the few. When I broke that barrier 13 years ago, I quickly learned he was the kind of friend who’d run through a brick wall for you 10 times over; bruised, battered, and with broken bones.

You never think it could happen to one of your own until it does, and when it did, I found myself constantly thinking of seemingly trivial details that defined my friend. The late-night taco runs, and watching him spill carne asada and rice all over his white tee as he devoured a burrito like a rabid animal; swerving on the freeway in his dusty Toyota Highlander, chain-smoking those disgusting Pall Malls with his trusty Steel Reserve tall can sitting snugly in the cup holder; his new glasses that precariously hung halfway down the bridge of his nose, giving him a studious neo-Nazi look with his shaved head and Dickies shorts; how fearlessly he flaunted his favorite dance with absolutely no rhythm–knees bent, elbows raised to his sides, an impossibly stiff upper body rocking back and forth–to any rap song with a West Coast bounce; and the way the corners of his mouth would slowly lift into a sly smile as he stared at you with those piercing blue eyes–it was almost as if he always knew something about you that you didn’t.

When I heard Saba’s 2018 album CARE FOR ME for the first time, I was incredibly moved by what was essentially a long-winded eulogy for his older cousin John Walt. “I was listening with one of the producers and he actually pointed it out: ‘Damn dude, all of these songs are about Walt.’ I didn’t even realize,” Saba told to Rolling Stone.

While Walter’s spirit permeates the entire project, the penultimate song tells the full story of their relationship. Enter “PROM / KING,” a seven-and-a-half-minute record that doesn’t waste a single second. Saba weaves an immersive narrative framed around his high school prom and a blind date set up by Walter, but instead of reflecting on this rite of passage with youthful exuberance, his voice is shrouded in a thick fog of nostalgia, floating through a stream of consciousness style of rapping. 

The wistfulness in his tone cuts through a distant backdrop of melancholy jazz piano as he recalls a time “before we had insomnia / sleepin’ peacefully, never needed a pile of drugs,” while the drum-laden instrumental of the song’s second half induces a striking sense of discord, a visceral reflection of the mental warfare that follows a devastating loss. 

Together, Saba and Walter were making music as a part of Pivot Gang, a Chicago-based hip-hop collective. One day, Saba receives a frantic call from Walter—someone just emptied an entire clip into his car on the highway. After dodging “death like a mad magician,” things go according to plan: Pivot Gang performs at Lollapalooza, Walter completes a new mixtape, and the group sells out a show at Lincoln Hall.

During a recording session for Bucket List Project, Saba’s 2016 studio debut, he receives a call from an unknown number:

“She says, ‘Hello, Malik, have you or Squeak / Talked to my son today? He was just on the train,’ / We got in the car but we didn’t know where to drive to / Fuck it, wherever you are my n***a, we’ll come and find you” —Saba, "PROM / KING"

At the end of the song, we hear hazy, pensive crooning, and the final line echoes into the distance as it fades to black. The outro, sung by Walt, has an eerily prophetic tint. He was stabbed to death in February of 2017.

“Just another day in the ghetto / Oh, the streets bring sorrow / Can’t get up today with their schedule / I just hope I make it ‘til tomorrow” —Saba, "PROM / KING"

“PROM / KING” is a powerful reminder the beauty in music often lies in our propensity to get lost in it. In times of tragedy, we search for a soundtrack to provide solace and refuge. As one line spills into another, we begin to understand where the artist is trying to lead us. We feel the gravity of every word pulling us deeper. And we choose not to fight it because it’s a story worth listening to. 

Just as John Walt’s memory lives on, in part, because Saba has the courage to immortalize his pain on wax, this is my ode to the memories I refuse to bury and the pain I chose to embrace.

I eventually returned all of those missed calls. On the morning of the funeral service, my friends and I shared countless stories while passing around flasks filled to the brim with Jameson; afterward, we laughed about how we were all waiting for our brother to barge into the church wearing an undershirt and flip-flops, with a half-smoked cigarette hanging from his mouth as he scanned a room full of people who probably never had the privilege of truly knowing him as we did. After spotting us huddled together in the back, he’d give his signature head nod, donning that same sly smile.

In July 2018, Saba revealed that “PROM / KING” was originally supposed to be the closing track on CARE FOR ME, but he added “Heaven All Around Me” to end the album on a lighter note.

“It’s still an uneasy ending to an album. But at the very least, it’s a glimpse of hope.” —Saba, "How Saba Made Art Out of Grief on Care for Me" (Rolling Stone)

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