Chicago might be nicknamed “The Second City,” but in recent years it’s become the number one major metro on the forefront of innovation in hip-hop.
Within the last 24 months, Chicago has seen genre-bending, ultra-cerebral releases from the likes of Vic Mensa, Mick Jenkins, Towkio, Dreezy, and Noname, and this is, of course, after Chance The Rapper’s Coloring Book literally changed the game, forcing the Recording Academy to revise its eligibility rules to include it in their 2016 Grammy Awards. It’s pretty safe to say that the Windy City is on a winning streak that no other major metropolitan hip-hop center has seen since the nineties.
Which means there was a lot of pressure on Tahj Malik Chandler, better known as Saba, to deliver just as masterful a project with Care For Me, his second album under his own label, Saba Pivot.
Of course, Chi-town has artistic support in the form of elements like YouMedia Center and Young Chicago Authors, youth-oriented open mics and workshops dedicated to helping young artists hone their crafts. It was in these programs that nearly all of Chi-town’s young breakthrough artists from Chance to Saba would develop their skills and sounds, which is why so many of them have such similar sinuous lyrical approaches to rapping. It’s this proximity that put Saba in the hot seat with his latest release, but it’s also what ensured that Care For Me is one of the best releases of the spring of 2018, even with almost two months to go.
There are ten songs here, a trim playlist that gives Saba just enough time to cover all the ground he needs to. He tackles heavy subject matter like his depression after the death of fellow Pivot Gang member John Walt with “Life” and his questionable dating proclivities on “Broken Girls” as well as lighter fare such as Chance The Rapper feature “Logout,” his reflection on the modern obsession with social media. In the meantime, “Calligraphy” handles the power of the pen to escape the desperate circumstances of Chicago’s gang-ridden South Side as “Smile” addresses the concept of money buying happiness.
Throughout, Saba’s flow retains the intricate, poetic quality that’s become a signature of YCA’s graduates, twisting and winding around and through itself, stacking syllables and metaphors so densely that the album simply begs for repeat listens. The beats veer fiercely away from the simplistic approach of modern trap, instead dabbling in soulful keys, plaintive horns, and muted drums, finding downtempo grooves that evoke the latter-day production of Detroit producer J Dilla filtered through Kanye West’s more organic compositions. The overall effect is warm and intimate; Saba wants to draw you in and indulge in a conversation rather than ostentatious flexes or high-minded preaching. It’s imminently listenable chill-out music with a depth that belies its mellow overtones.
“Grey” finds Saba at his most passionate and verbose over a jazzy composition that breaks down halfway through, becoming a full-on improvisation session as he vents his frustration with the current state of hip-hop music. It’s well-tread ground, but by incorporating the metaphor of the monochromatic palette of rap creation of recent years, he breathes new life into a worn-out (and slightly inaccurate) conceit. It’s a mark of how skilled and creative he truly is that he doesn’t sound bitter; rather than coming off like a crank, he sounds like a fan who simply wishes for something more.
The autobiographical “Prom/King” demonstrates Saba’s awe-inspiring storytelling ability as he details his prom experience and makes it genuinely engaging, then weaves in a moving tribute to Walt’s surviving a shootout only to fall to another encounter just six months later. It flows directly into “Heaven All Around Me,” another example of the cohesion and consistency Saba embraces from the beginning of Care For Me to the end.
While the slower overall tempo of the album may be a weakness to some, the fact that the album shies away from turn-up anthems is one of its greatest strengths. The narrative is paramount and the vibe is everything. There is no moment that takes the listener out of the moments that he relays from track to track. Care For Me wants you to do just that, and in avoiding trends, it places the emphasis on Saba’s words and moods rather than distracting with party jams or obvious ploys for radio acceptance.
With yet another potentially culture-shifting release under its belt, the Windy City has again asserted its potential dominance over the next wave of hip-hop. With Chance making hip-hop family friendly and fun again, Chief Keef’s influence continuing to spread ripples throughout the online landscape, and rappers like Saba delivering quality gems like Care For Me, all eyes should be on Chi-Town, the new frontier of the rap game.