Right now you can't be from Chicago without being from Chicago. Hip-hop has always been obsessed with geography, but with Chicago blanketed in the kind of epidemic violence that fill headlines and threatens to smother the city, the city itself has become the lens through which we view every artist anywhere near that 312 area code.
It's rare to make it through a rap interview without talking about the block an artist grew up on, and it's nearly impossible to make it through a rap interview with a Chicago artist without talking about Chicago, so when I talked to Saba I was wary of digging too deep into his native land. I wanted to give Saba the space to be something more than the product of his environment. It turned out that Saba was more than willingly open to wearing his city's name across his chest:
"People in Chicago are really starting to be heard, and it's been long enough. For so long no one was listening. Chicago became something to talk about on Twitter, the violence almost became a joke to some people. But now our stories are getting out, Chicago artists are being heard. I'm proud to rep Chicago. As an artist from Chicago, we did it. We made ourselves associated with the city."
So Saba is an unapologetic Chicago artist, but what kind of Chicago artist is he? While hip-hop heads and the media often try to draw a bold line between more street-oriented rappers like Chief Keef and the city's more experimental set like Chance the Rapper, in Saba's view differing music styles don't really matter. What matters most is a shared history, a shared place, a shared Chicago. As he explained, someone like Chance and Keef have all seen the same things, the same tragedies, but Chance is rapping about what he's seen and Keef is rapping about what he did.
Even as a nearly straight-A student in high school and self-professed nerd, Saba's also seen it all, felt the pain Chicago's streets have to offer, even if he came across that pain primarily as a witness instead of a perpetrator. It's that dynamic, that duality, that drives so much of his music.
But while Saba's heart might beat with the blood of Chicago, the city is not the sum total of who he is. He's also that kid in the studio with his father, an accomplished musician in his own right, trying to pick up how to play piano chords. He's that kid in middle school hearing Bone Thugs for the first time and feeling inspired to start rapping. He's that young man who worked as a janitor for money, who could be found hanging out at YouMedia, who mentored other kids. And now, he's a man, an artist.
So even more than just a Chicago artist, that's the artist, the person, the world first heard on Chance's "Everybody's Something," and that's the person on full display on Saba's excellent ComfortZone album. As the son of a musician he's always focused on melody and song structure, he writes songs, not just raps, but he's also not afraid to embrace everything that comes with being a full-fledged emcee. Along with his Pivot Gang cohorts, Saba's creating a sound that's recklessly human, unafraid of complexity and, let's not forget, pretty fucking dope.
While the world's just now hearing Saba's voice, ComfortZone was years in the making, meaning that it's really more of a reflection of where Saba was than were he is right now. The success of the project has allowed him to tour, see some of the world, but really it's all just starting for Saba. This isn't the beginning for him, but it is a beginning. He has no plans to sign with a major label, no real aspirations to become a business, man (at least not yet). Right now he's simply seeing the door of his career beginning to open and is preparing to walk through that door the only way he knows how - backed by his music and his city.
We don't know where Saba's fate lies anymore than he does, but we do know that we believe in his music, we believe that he's a "Top Prospect" and we believe in Chicago. That's not everything, but it's a lot.
[Nathan S. is the managing editor of The DJBooth and a hip-hop writer. He also occasionally talks in podcast form and appears on RevoltTV. His beard is awesome. This is his Twitter.]