Time has repeatedly proven that Chicago is bustling with hip-hop talent. But it takes much more than mere microphone skill to make it in this rap game. Being strapped with only clever verses is akin to only solving the first step in what seems like a never-ending, complex calculus query. No matter how carefully one follows the logical, yet intricate steps, the answer always seems elusive.
Well, salute Chi-Town spitter, Saba, because he seems to have the answers, or rather the secret, to success. The same secret that author Rhonda Byrne unearthed in her 2006 critically acclaimed self-help book of the same name. Thanks, in part, to Byrne’s The Secret, the innocuous and studious 21-year-old rapper troops the universe with an angelic #GoodVibesOnly perspective on life, which seeps through his unique and motivational bars on songs like “Scum,” “Butter” and “Tell You” from his Comfort Zone effort. With that being the case, the West Side Chi-City rep’ has found himself on the receiving end of blessings, courtesy of the gods of positive energy. Saba’s uplifting content is shrouded in self-love and recognizing his blessings more than his drawbacks. Throw in a fluid flow, authentic persona, and it’s a safe bet that Saba’s name will become a mainstay in hip-hop circles.
It’s likely that most folks outside of Chicago first heard Saba on Chance The Rapper’s 2013 Acid Rap. Building off the success of Acid Rap, the rapper and former Columbia College of Chicago student born Tajh Malik Chandler continued building his buzz inside of Chicago’s open mic circuit, the same spot where fellow Chicagoans Mick Jenkins, Vic Mensa, NoName Gypsy and Alex Wiley sharpened their lyrical darts.
“My buzz in Chicago was a weird one,” Saba says. “All of the artists leading Chicago’s rap scene knew who I was but none of the fans knew who I was. And that’s just now what I kind of starting to fix.”
Although Saba’s was featured on arguably one of the best projects of 2013, it was his 2014 jazz-influenced and socially aware Comfort Zone mixtape that took Saba’s hip-hop presence to new heights. Shortly after Comfort Zone hit the ‘Net, record labels began dropping emails in his inbox. He also earned another spot on Chance The Rapper and Donnie Trumpet’s Surf effort. On track No. 10—the soulful “Smthnthlwnt”—Saba rolls through the piano, guitar and the trumpet-laden backdrop with raps about utopia and keeping his prayer count way, way, way up. With Saba bodying “Smthnthlwnt,” many hip-hop lovers and critics did their Googles, looking for more info on this Saba cat that keeps popping up on Chance The Rapper’s projects.
“My relationship with Chance is unorthodox, I would say,” Saba says of his and Chance’s musical friendship. “He got me on singles and albums, so a lot of people would say that we’re close, and we’ve been that way our whole life, but it’s not like that. We didn’t really have a relationship before that. We knew each other because we both went to the open mic. I thought he was dope, and I think he felt the same thing about me.”
With the Windy City’s unfortunate gun and gang violence separating the city, one wonders how a 90s baby managed to stay away from the abysmal inner city blues and link with an outside young bull to make positive music. Well, for one, Saba’s father was instrumental in his life, despite living in New York City.
“My pops showed me The Secret when I was like eleven-years-old,” he says. “I remember I went to school the next day trying that sh*t. The premise of The Secret is: ‘What you think is what you become.’ Next month, I’m like: ‘Damn, this sh*t really works.’ And, that’s another reason why I have to keep it positive.”
Just days after Winter Storm Jonas locked the Rotten Apple down with nearly 30 inches of snow, Saba splashed his magnetic smile, and easy-going persona all over VIBE’s Manhattan digs just hours before his show at Rough Trade. He came in quietly with his cameraman and publicist in tow, rocking shoulder-length locs that peeked out from his black skull cap, a maroon bomber jacket blanketing his crisp, all-black T, slim brown jeans, classic Timbs and prescription eyewear perched atop his keen nose. After a delighted convo about his still novice come-up in the rap game, Saba shared his opinions on more important issues such as Chicago’s gang culture, the comradeship among Chi-City spitters, and another reason for his positive outlook on life.
“I’ve been exposed to a lot of things that they [fellow Chicago street rappers Bibby, G- Herbo, Lil Durk, Chief Keef and others] rap about, but I just chose not to do it, and I can rap about it in a way that shows that that’s not what I’m about,” Saba explains. “One of the reasons I think my perspective is different is because I went to a private school—St. Joseph. I had to leave Chicago to go to school everyday. I went to school in Westchester. And I’m going to this nice a** school, which I had to take three buses to get to, I got to see two completely different lifestyles. I was in a diverse place and that showed me something different that what I wasn’t used to seeing. And plus, I always had my dad. But he’s always been a real positive person in my life. Even outside of music, he always acknowledged that there is more than one path, and whatever paths you take just do it with that positive energy and everything will come back.“
You see, Saba’s perpetually good vibes are part of his DNA. And with a decade of practicing the laws of attraction, it’s likely that Saba—possibly through hip-hop—will help change the perspectives of some youngins roaming the Chi-City jungle. This is something that Saba ponders often.
“I think about that sh*t everyday,” he says. “I wish I had the answer so I can be doing that sh*t, man. But I don’t know because it’s not as easy as just saying: ‘Stop gang banging.’ It’s so bad in Chicago now that some people aren’t even making a conscious decision like, ‘I’m going to join a gang today.’ It’s kind of like that’s what you become. I’m just blessed, because I remember a time when I really thought that that was going to be the life that I was part of. I was blessed enough to be removed from that sh*t. It’s hard to pin–point how to fix a person’s way of thinking. It’s psychological at that point.”
While Saba may not have the answers, he does have bars. And thankfully Chicago’s street rappers (Bibby, Herb, Durk and Keef) and the conscious MCs (Jenkins and Chance The Rapper) have so much love for each other that they think it’ll very well lead to other healthy relationships within the city.
“I see myself in all of it in semi-middle ground. I’m from out West so a lot of the stuff that they’re talking about, I’m familiar with. I’m speaking more on the perspective of what can be done and how we feel about it. And on their side—and I hate to separate it like that—I feel it’s more like what we’re doing, the actual action. So for us, it’s easy to be like: ‘I’m looking at these n***as and they shooting n***as, I think this is wrong.’ It’s two different perspectives but it’s all describing the same city.“
Despite the two sides of Chicago’s hip-hop scene, there’s no bad blood brewing among city’s hip-hop circuit. Rappers from different walks of life are forming strong bonds. “Herb (G-Herbo) is my homie, so we’re definitely breaking that ground,” Saba says. “It’s definitely two different worlds but we’re crossing paths. And then with Mick Jenkins signing to Cinematic Music Group and then with Herb signing to Cinematic, with sh*t like that it’s bringing it together.”
Saba gives partial credit to Chance The Rapper for being instrumental in the commandership of Chicago’s MCs. “I thought it was a bold statement on his end,” he says. “It leveled Chicago rap. It’s not about all the extra sh*t that comes along with rap. If I’m a fan of you and you’re a fan of me, it should be that simple. That’s something that I think the whole Chicago is working towards—eliminating all of the extra rap world sh*t and just being on the same level, whether you’re a hundred followers or a million followers into the sh*t. But Chance is one of those people who actually had that belief in us. As much as we believed in ourselves, he saw it even before a lot of people did.”
With a city that’s torn apart with G.D.’s, Vice Lords, Stones, B.G.D.’s and other individual blocks, Saba feels like the city’s hip-hop scene has a responsibly to give back to the community. “I think a lot of us got similar views now,” Saba says. “It’s at a point now that, especially in Chicago, the sh*t that we say is important to people. With great power comes great responsibility, and using that to help others and ourselves is an actual focus.”