Saba’s been in a creative mood recently. But before he does anything else, he has to finish unpacking some boxes first. When we talk over a video call two days before the release of his new album Few Good Things, he pans over to show a stack of shoeboxes, saying that he never thought about how difficult it’d be to drop an album and move to a new house at the same time. Despite the busy schedule, the Chicago musician is beaming with excitement you can feel through the screen. “I’m back in a space that feels similar to when we first started making music,” the 27-year-old rapper said. “We thought we were the most amazing, the coldest to ever do it.” Saba credits his refreshed outlook to the much-needed break he’s had, half his doing, the other half caused by the ongoing pandemic.
In April 2018, he released his meditative sophomore album Care For Me, a delicately constructed album that navigated loss, relationships, loneliness, and family. Memories of John Walt, Saba’s cousin and a founding member of Pivot Gang who was killed in February 2017, are immortalized in the grief-stricken stories of Care For Me. “I was listening with one of the producers and he actually pointed it out: ‘Damn dude, all of these songs are about Walt,'” Saba told Rolling Stone in July 2018. Like its predecessor, 2016’s Bucket List Project, which boosted Saba’s profile beyond show-stealing features on fellow Chicagoan Chance the Rapper’s tapes, Care For Me was another forward leap that positioned Saba as one of independent rap’s brightest rising stars. Less than a week after Care For Me was released, Saba hit the road with fervor: there was his own tour in the spring, followed by festivals in the summer, and a college road trip in the fall. He supported J.I.D. in summer 2019 and embarked on a brief Pivot Gang tour before finally taking a moment to rest.
If things happened the way Saba thought they would, there wouldn’t have been a nearly four-year wait for Few Good Things. He had planned to release a second album in winter 2018, recalling sleepless nights and burnt-out studio sessions, but held off when he realized that Care For Me was still reaching new listeners. (“Why are we in such a rush?” he asks himself now.) Some of the songs meant for that project were released, like the teary-eyed and commemorative “Stay Right Here” and “Papaya,” a cozy daydream about falling in love with a girl dating someone else.
“I didn’t want my follow-up to Care For Me to just be ‘here, something to feed the streets,’” he explained. “I wanted it to be something that was really thought out, that represented where I was and gave people an updated glimpse into my life in a similar manner.”
With Few Good Things, Saba set out to make creative decisions that challenged him to not retrace familiar steps. That meant cutting back on two-part suites, bringing in guests, and creating a full visual world to accompany the music with director C.T. Robert. The resulting effort is a tender and dutifully-made 14-song collection tied together by a story Saba’s grandfather tells about the house belonging to Saba’s great-grandmother, which is now a vacant building. The free-flowing structure of the album allows Saba to experiment with new vocal inflections and bring in guests like Smino, Fousheé, and Mereba to color in his expansive world.
At times, the new album feels like a spiritual successor to Bucket List Project. His 2016 album included crackling voice memos from friends, fans, and collaborators about their future ambitions. There were visions of In-N-Out burgers, Grammy aspirations, calls to de-gentrify Chicago, braggadocious endeavors to have sex with 10 women at once, and a simple wish to learn to play drums. Presented without commentary, those realistic desires and wild fantasies became windows into what people saw as fulfillment. Those aspirations are made into reality on “One Way or Every Nigga With A Budget” when Saba talks about replacing game controllers when they get lost in his new home and keeping an open door for friends who need a spot to crash. Few Good Things is often celebratory of Saba’s current living situation but never goes long without remembering those who aren’t here to enjoy it with him.
“There’s so much drama that goes on in poor communities just based on money and the lack thereof,” Saba tells me. “Money would obliterate a lot of people’s immediate stress and immediate drama attached to needing to earn. And it’ll allow people a second to think about what they actually want to do. A lot of Black people don’t have that luxury—to wake up and be like, ‘hmm, today I want to do blank.’ That’s something that I would love if everyone that was from where I’m from could do.”
It’s just as authentic, just as true to who I am, but it’s completely different.
It’s a little ironic that “An Interlude Called ‘Circus'” is a fuzzy, minute-long passage about the fleeting nature of life’s most savory moments. “Circus” feels like when the streetlights flick on during the last night of summer and you aren’t sure when you’ll see the friends you've made again. It’s a feeling that you might spend your whole life chasing, only to experience it again for a few seconds. “Not to sound like I don’t appreciate what they pay me / But all the days in the basement, we tryin’ to recreate it,” he raps. Saba said along with “If I Had A Dollar,” it was one of the hardest songs to finish since none of the verses he was writing felt “necessary.” “We 30 seconds into the song and I don’t have anything else left to say,” he said with a laugh.
The night before the album was released, Saba posted an open letter asking people to “acknowledge the full spectrum of Black emotion” when talking about the album. It’s far from a novel concern – artists have made similar requests of critics and listeners for ages. Saba’s frustration in particular stems from listeners approaching his music through a narrow emotional lens and tying it back to events from his own life to “invent storylines that aren’t there.” Such false narratives are only reinforced by the critics who refuse to fully grapple with work itself, instead overlooking the feelings in the music, leaning on outdated or dubious ideas of an artist’s life, or both. In his letter, Saba encourages everyone to take the time to consider what’s truly on display.
When I ask Saba how he felt about the critical reception of Care For Me, he maintains that he wasn’t surprised, but when he talks about seeing his personal story resonate with others, it’s clear that he was moved a little. Afterwards, I ask him about what he meant by making the “anti-Care For Me” and if he felt pressured by new expectations.
“Because people connected with Care For Me on an emotional level, there’s some fans that’ll hear that album and I’ll never top it to them,” he said. “They’ve grown with it. They’ve cried to it. That’s the album that got them through that shit. I made a great album, and I’m happy about that—but I’m gonna make another great album. It’s just as authentic, just as true to who I am, but it’s completely different.”