Saba, From Nothing to Abundance
On Few Good Things, Saba is older, wiser, and looking back on his story — the highs, the lows, and the timeless challenges faced over generations of family.
It’s late January, and Saba is relieved.
“There are so many parts to creating an album,” explains the 27-year-old Chicago emcee, loose and conversational. “Some of these songs I started on years and years ago, so to really feel like things that you created are gonna finally see the light of day... it's just pure relief.” His third record, Few Good Things, is less than a fortnight away, and though he cops to some angst, he’s no stranger to creative courage. “There's a level of anxiety that comes with it… but it's too late for any other feeling,” he says with a laugh.
That said, Saba’s never really been the cagey sort. It’s been a quiet four years since the heart-rending CARE FOR ME, punctuated by singles like “Ziplock / Rich Don’t Stop,” “So and So” and “Mrs. Whoever,” an album with his friends in Pivot Gang, and a smattering of features alongside Dreamville, Aminé, Patrick Paige II, and supergroup Ghetto Sage. They’ve been loose years, verses solitary and singles untethered, a far cry from the conceptual narrative that solidified him as one of Chicago’s foremost artists.
In a sense, Few Good Things takes that broad, untethered scope and turns it to a sprawling character study. The lens pulls back from instances and evenings, decades shifting into focus. On the one hand, it’s a portrait of the artist as a young man, reflecting on his past, taking stock of his present, and planning for a future he’s determined to create. On the other, it’s a meditation that pushes the walls out on his story, moving past the hyper-focused narrative of CARE FOR ME and finding a commonality with “those who came before us and never got to see it through,” to whom the record is dedicated.
A vibrant return and career best, Few Good Things pairs place with perspective, exploring Saba, his circle, and the city that shaped them.
Wisdom doesn’t come easy, but Saba is no stranger to hardship. It’s taken many forms, but on Few Good Things, those trials are doused in a hope that’s long endured. “It wasn't something we had to arrive at, because it was something that we lived,” says Saba of that perseverance. “When we were in the basement 10 years ago, when we were trying to chase this dream that nobody saw fit for us, we never doubted it, we never doubted ourselves, and in that moment, it felt real.”
That reality is one that recurs throughout the record, with Saba’s gaze drifting back a decade on tracks like An Interlude Called Circus and 2012. The raw grief of CARE FOR ME is replaced by a wistful remembrance, pining for not only times since passed and faces long departed, but the fierce passions of youth. “Part of it is mindset, and part of it is that alignment, but a lot of things happened that led us here,” waxes Saba, “and a lot of things that are happening that are going to lead us even further, to bigger and crazier places.”
As Saba switches from present to past, we bear witness to the shifting motivations behind those events. On 2012, Pivot Gang step off the streets and “escape it all in the booth with the playback,” but on opener Free Samples, an older Saba resolves that he “won’t stop until I find a way home” and “until I see the change I have made.” “We got eyes and we can see what's around us, and it's a bunch of nothing,” he tells me. “It's very obvious that we're not supposed to be in the position that we are.”
That’s a story all too familiar on Saba’s side of Division Street, the aptly-named artery that marks a sharp social divide. It’s a cause for support, as on the peppy One Way or Every N***a With a Budget; alarm, as on the animated Fearmonger; solidarity, as on the silken Come My Way; and familial responsibility, as on the Outkastian Soldier.
It’s the latter that pervades Few Good Things, breaking through in the interstitial counsel of Saba’s elders. “The cover is my grandfather, that's who I'm talking to throughout the record,” he explains. “It's me and him talking, and sometimes my grandma will be in the background and she'll say something, but it's just me talking to my grandparents.”
Saba’s grandparents spurred his ambition, their oft-invoked basement housing Pivot Gang’s humble beginnings. On Few Good Things, they move past reference, their counsel a cornerstone. “I feel like the things that I'm questioning on this album are things that I realize they've had to question, and they've been expected to have certain answers,” he adds. “It’s like they're trying to figure it out the same way we all are.”
These enduring tenets come in brief fragments — Saba’s grandfather returning to Chicago on Survivor’s Guilt; his fondness for his mothers house, “the glue that kept the family together,” on Still — echoing relationships and roles that flow through Saba’s bars. He’s dropping cash supporting the fam on One Way or Every N***a with a Budget, skipping town to escape the trauma on Survivor’s Guilt, battling the feat of sudden insolvency on Fearmonger, and indulging the thought of a simple home life on Still. They’re tenets that unite peers like they do generations, both enduring and all-embracing.
“CARE FOR ME was created in such solitude,” explains Saba. “The features were almost the last thing that happened in that case. With this album, it's really collaborative.” Where CARE FOR ME carried two guests, Few Good Things manages just two solo songs, the record teeming with friends, peers and a couple of idols. “I think why I wanted to include so many people was one, as a fan of music — I'm such a big fan of every artist that I have featured, which I'm really thankful and grateful that I was able to pull that off, I still don't know how the hell we did that — but also, in terms of perspective, I think with some of the subjects that we are attacking on this album, it just makes sense to have different perspectives.”
Come My Way, featuring a turn from Krayzie Bone, speaks to both of these rationales. Saba’s long called Bone Thugs-n-Harmony “the ones who actually made me like rap and want to do it,” and Krayzie’s natural affinity for the grind complements Saba’s compassion for those hustling to make ends meet. “Sometimes it's contradictory. Sometimes it's like, this person doesn't feel the same way that I feel about whatever subject we're rapping about, but their perspective is still valid, and still can contribute to the song in whatever way.”
The scope of features taps into the timeless tutelage of Saba’s elders, such perspective leaping from veteran bars. “Black Thought is considered as one of the greatest rappers ever,” says Saba, energized. “People respect him in that company, and that's the conversation that he's always mentioned in. One of my reasons for even wanting him on this thing is because I hope to one day be in it in that conversation.”
That world, and the people who comprise it, also make a mark on Few Good Things’ striking art style. “When I made Free Samples, I had a line that reminded me of my grandfather. It just made me want him to be the album cover. He's in front of his mom's house on the cover, so it goes back even another generation.” It’s a connection that Saba treats communally, referring to the story as “ours,” speaking of lineage and inheritance.
“I wanted the perspective of different generations throughout the single artwork,” says Saba of his portrait-laden releases. “I want to show how much of what we're experiencing is generational, whether it be young, like the Come My Way cover; older, like the Fearmonger cover; or my age, like the Stop That cover.” Those glimpses at perseverance, fear and insecurity tap a timeless vein, with the art “showing these generational stories and making a dialogue out of them.”
Saba has long married melodic cadences to razor-sharp imagery. On Bucket List Project, those bars built a world of aspirations and asides. Memories play out in the backseat of Squeak’s Buick; at his grandmothers’ place out by Wallace Catfish Corner; and by the alternating shops and shrines of Church / Liquor Store, vivid sketches drawn bar-by-bar. It’s hardly a surprise that Few Good Things arrives with a short film — if anything, it’s strange it’s taken this long.
“Doing a short film has been a goal of mine for almost as long as I've been rapping,” says Saba, enthused. “It was always an inspiration of mine, the visual part of the art, so to be able to accompany the song and give them a world visually has always been a goal.” There’s evidence enough in his music videos, with recent loose singles such as Ziplock / Rich Don’t Stop, So and So and Mrs. Whoever graced with colorful clips. Nonetheless, as Saba elaborates, it’s clear that Few Good Things is something greater.
“For this record, we just were finally in alignment,” he says surprised, aware of just how unlikely that opportunity seems. “We had the director, CT Robert, from jump. From the second I set out with the intention of making this album, he's been involved.” The result is more than just a glitzy accompaniment, with Robert’s vision steeped in the same stories as the songs themselves. “Every song that would get created, he would have immediately with a full lyric breakdown, and we would have conversations about it over the phone, he would talk to me about my family and my grandparents, he would have conversations with them, and everything like that.”
“It was a really personal process in terms of connecting with the director and the writer of the short film,” he adds, tenderly. “Fortunately, it was finally able to happen on this album, but that's something that I've been trying to do for albums now.”
It’s in the closing moments of Few Good Things that Saba’s grandfather, encouraging his wife, lands on the ultimate contention: “you have to tell that story!” It’s innocuous, the sort of thing we’ve all said in good company, but as the spotlight falls on that closing aside, it turns to a mission statement. “The whole record almost could be summed up in the very last line on the record,” he says, speaking on his closing bars. “That's the quickest thing that I wrote, that last part… the fact that it came out how it came out really lets me know that it was just supposed to be that.”
Few Good Things isn’t a record about an idea, a moment, or even a time in Saba’s life. It’s the whole lot, from that which preceded him to the things that may come to pass. It’s longing and elation, hardship and celebration, the wild and multifaceted experience of not only being alive, but surviving across the decades. A testament to those last few words, soft but assured: “We turned a bunch of nothing to abundance / Few good things…”