The story goes: great artist experiences greater trauma to make opus.
This is the lore of CARE FOR ME, Chicago rapper Saba’s living-classic work, eulogy to his fallen cousin John Walt, and the strongest album of 2018. Per its title, CARE FOR ME is gingerly woven and affecting, an album of knots undone and emotions unraveled. For every rattling thought on the record, there is an equally becoming moment of self-reliance and growth. In the quiet spaces of jazz arrangements and crunching snares, Saba fights for his mental—and he wins. And in the year since the album has been released, Saba has been continuously winning that fight.
“I think, just in terms of healing, it’s not like one day you just wake up better,” Saba tells me. “It’s a day-to-day thing, where some days you’ll feel great and some days you won’t. Even though the album is a year old now, a lot of those feelings, they don’t just disappear with dropping the album. Some days you have ‘em, some days, you don’t.”
The miraculous nature of CARE FOR ME, then, goes beyond Saba’s healing. The album was a space for him to empty his mind (“The songs were easy to write because it was on my head, but they weren’t songs that I wanted to have to ever write”), but quickly the record grew into an arena of communal healing. Fans all across the globe turned to CARE FOR ME to take care of themselves, and now having toured the world, Saba sees performing the songs and the album, on some level, as a celebration.
“It’s one of the few bodies of work, where I listen to it and I don’t try to pick it apart,” Saba says. “I’m just super stoked. I feel just as strongly as I felt about it a year ago. I can't listen to it as often, because the songs are so close so it’s hard for me to listen to some of those songs. But performing them is different. Performing them feels like a celebration of life and a celebration of a lot of those songs and the amount of togetherness with me and the crowd.”
That togetherness, though well-earned, does surprise Saba, if only because of the hyper-specificity of CARE FOR ME. What he must have realized in the last year is that loss is ubiquitous, and pain can take hold of anyone, even someone without their own John Walt. The miracle of CARE FOR ME, too, is how it so seamlessly tapped into the universal struggle to deliver an album that anyone can tune into to feel better.
“I can say that the amount of people who relate so heavily to the music [is surprising],” Sab admits. “With an album like CARE FOR ME, all of the stories are super specific to my life and my upbringing. The type of stories that people tell me at shows, they aren’t the average ‘Yo, I bump your shit every day,’ type of stories. The music just means so much to people, and that’s really dope. I was just kinda making an album for myself, so to now have it be respected as such a great body of work is a really cool feeling.”
“Every now and then, I think of this kid that I met on the Bucket List tour, a couple years back. I met him in Santa Ana, and he had just had a really rough year. He lost a lot of people close to him, and he was talking to me about losing his sister and it was right around the time I lost Walt. I don’t remember the kid’s name, but every now and then I think about him and just hope he’s doing well.” —Saba
Yet, when Saba began making CARE FOR ME, he did not foresee or even consider having this wide and deep of an impact on his fan base. Impact did not cross his mind. All that mattered to him was the quality and the honesty of the music. This was an album made from the heart and for the artist, and perhaps the insular point of inspiration allowed it to bloom into such the masterwork. From the soundscapes to the writing, to the cover art and the rollout, everything about CARE FOR ME is bare in the most becoming of ways. Saba is CARE FOR ME; CARE FOR ME is Saba.
“I think the coolest thing about what we’ve been able to do with CARE FOR ME, is to establish ourselves as our own thing,” he explains. “It’s not like we’re selling people on some type of idea or crazy brand, it’s kinda just like… Me. I’m not trying to be something that I’m not. And I think the people see that, and they fuck with it.”
As Saba tells me, having just finishing touring the world and gearing up for another show the night of our interview, fans of across the globe sing their hearts out at his concerts.
“We’ve been able to play shows in pretty much every country, and that shit is a really crazy feeling for an artist that is independent,” he beams. “It’s just crazy to be in Norway or Sweden and be playing a packed show. It’s wild. Then places like Japan or Korea… I met a lot of people who barely could speak English but sung every word of every song we performed.”
The 24-year-old product of Chicago's Austin neighborhood goes on to explain that he feels blessed to have gotten this reception. It’s easy to forget, considering the leap taken from his debut album to his sophomore, but CARE FOR ME is only his second studio record. Even if we count the mixtapes, Saba is not that deep into his career. Yet, he has the work ethic of an OG, and the dedicated fan base of one as well.
“It’s a real blessing as an artist to be able to experience that, especially so early in my career,” Saba says of his success. “This is really only my second album…. It’s cool to be on a level where even though it’s lowkey and it feels underground, it’s making such a big impact in a worldly manner. Playing these shows, you really see the impact of good music.”
Saba knows he means a great deal to a great number of people. But it’s no pressure. “I don’t really think of it that way,” he admits with a chuckle. “I look at it on a worldly level, it’s such a human feeling, everything that I describe on the album. It’s a feeling based album, even down to the music. People who are listening to the music keep going back to the music and the music is helping them. That’s something I take a lot of pride in because I’m somebody who was helped by creating the music. It’s like a mutual benefit type of thing with me and the fans.”
However, it would be unfair to say that Saba stumbled into all of this: the album, the fans, the shows, the success. Whether he knew it or not, he had been gearing up for an album on the level of CARE FOR ME since Comfort Zone, since he dropped Bucket List Project and took serious tones to new heights on “American Hypnosis.” While there is no CARE FOR ME without Saba’s grave loss, there is also no CARE FOR ME without the themes on Bucket List Project. Everything is predicated by everything else in Saba’s career, and now, CARE FOR ME is teaching Saba to “chill the fuck out.”
“As amazing as it is to be so personal in music, right now I’ve been doing a bunch of features and a bunch of lighter stuff,” he explains. “Just to get my head back right, before going into the next album. It’s hard… After you put it all out there, what do you even follow it up with? It was a fun album to make, but the songs weren’t fun.
“Right now, I’m in a space creatively where I’m having fun again with the music. I think CARE FOR ME allowed for me to get to this point. I had to get past that and get all of that information out of my brain. It was like a block that I had to get CARE FOR ME done and now it’s completely open in my brain again.”
So where does that leave Saba? “Now, I’m just really fucking busy,” he says, laughing. “I’m doing a lot better. I’m also just doing a lot in general.”
As creatives, we learn early on to work through our trauma, and Saba has evidently become a master in that department. But it’s not all trauma, and it will never be. In the last year, Saba has experienced so many career highs, and he never wants to take them for granted.
“I’m really blessed to be here, have done it, have told the story, and have had it connect with so many people,” he says. “Emotionally, I’m just ready to lock in and get back in the studio. I think that’s where I’ll find out how I’m doing emotionally [laughs]. I tend to start writing and just see where my brain is.”
“I’m extremely proud of myself, but I’m sure that there are people who are even more proud of me, and those people are probably as follows: my grandparents and then my actual parents. It doesn’t feel like I’m alone.” —Saba
Mind clear, creative energy right, it’s only fitting that our interview comes to the operative question: What makes Saba happy nowadays?
“A lot of shit makes me happy,” Sab tells me. “Being happy is cool, but I think being happy around happy people is awesome! It’s really cool to be happy by yourself, and that’s really important, but having a team… I think that’s the coolest part of Pivot Gang: the community is thriving. When the community is happy, it’s just a different feeling.”
"Being happy is tight, shout out to happiness."