In Chicago, the final days of July were marked with sporadic, relentless showers as music lovers flocked once again to Grant Park for the city’s annual Lollapalooza Festival.
Even the most zealous fans – those brave enough to push their way to a front-row experience – were forced to submit to Mother Nature who, at the very least, ruined their shoes that weekend. The artists who were summoned to the event were not exempt either, including Saba, who dodged the massive droplets to find temporary shelter under a white tent. From now on, the day he crossed “perform at Lollapalooza” off his bucket list, will forever include memories of the downpour. But you’d never be able to tell by the smile tucked beneath his black-and-white N.E.R.D. trucker hat. For him, performing at Lollapalooza was surreal, inclement weather and all. His face read equal parts joy and disbelief, as he tried to piece together words to do his heart justice. But all he could muster up was: “All of it is like a blur. I remember the last song of the set – that s**t was turnt – but, what just happened?”
What happened was that 22-year-old Tahj Malik Chandler, a kid from the West Side of Chicago, had just hit one of his hometown’s most renowned stages. And though it was an earlier set on one of the festival’s smaller locales – 12:50 p.m. at the Pepsi Stage – it drew the largest crowd of his career. His initial reaction was indeed prosaic, but his return to the city that summer was nothing short of poetic. For his third and most recent body of work, Saba ventured away from his beloved Windy City to the City of Angels, taking refuge in a Los Angeles Airbnb to create. Alongside his Chicago cohorts, producer Phoelix and rapper Noname, Saba held a proverbial seance to resurrect his inspiration. “A change of scenery always makes for, at the very least, a good story,” he said, making direct eye contact to match his matter-of-fact tone. “Some of the conversations that we had were a lot deeper than a lot of the conversations we would have seeing each other everyday in Chicago. On the other side of the world, it’s like we had a different connection with each other.” The result of their renewed connection was his latest album, Bucket List Project.
While immediately a signifier of mortality, the term “bucket list” for Saba was not inspired by morbid thoughts of death. In fact, a looser, more colloquial connotation of the word “bucket,” meaning a rather worn-out car, served as one of the reasons for the title. Gesticulating, Saba recounted his struggles with the Chicago Transit Authority, explaining that late night travel was made nearly impossible by the shutting down of trains and buses. In a spur-of-the-moment decision, the rapper decided to buy a used car off of Craigslist, and it became one of his shining moments. “It’s one of those things where, knowing what is now and knowing that it’s not forever. Driving this hoopty, my transmission went out, damn-near on the expressway and s**t. Things like that, are s***ty, but also inspiring once you’re over them.”
More literally, Bucket List Project includes proclamations from actual people (some of whom include Lupe Fiasco and Chance the Rapper), of things they want to do before they die. From a romp with Kylie Jenner to earning ten million dollars to smoking a blunt with Beyoncé, the album highlights the ambitions of a wide-ranging group. Even this, according to Saba, was meant to inspire. “Bucket List wasn’t supposed to be a sad thing; it’s more of a celebration of life. The main thing I wanted to do was get these little West Side kids out of their normal way of thinking. All of this s**t is possible. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to dream, because you can make that s**t a reality by just putting that s**t in the universe.” This is how his thinking works; every negative leads back to a positive. Faced with the realization that creating a body of work is a difficult feat – when you have “rapper stuff” to do, like perform every other week – Saba turned his problems into inspiration for others. One person he hopes to continue to inspire? His eight-year-old self.
“For me, in the back of my head, there’s always a younger version of me that I think about a lot,” he said, stroking his chin for a thoughtful pause after being probed about his driving force. “I was eight when I decided that I wanted to pursue music. Sometimes I just listen to the music like, ‘What would that kid think of this?’ It’s that kid that was super dedicated, who sometimes has to remind me of why I’m doing it and who it is that I am.” A stark contrast to some of the more typical driving forces of others, Saba doesn’t feel the need to strive to make his parents proud, because “their love is so deep and instilled.” Deep in the sense that they were always proud of him. Instilled in the sense that his family has yet to move out of his West Side community of Austin, where crime is currently up 20 percent. True to form, he sees his city’s bright side, calling it “beautiful,” “terrible” and “everything that is the music.”
As a Black kid from a poor, crime-ridden neighborhood who now enjoys the job description “rapper,” gratefulness can happen at any turn for Saba. One such moment was on a flight back from the U.K., where he found himself revisiting his critically-acclaimed 2014 project, ComfortZone. “I cried,” he gasped, quickly realizing it was the first time he’d shared that story. “It was just so emotional. Coming from the West Side, and having to deal with everything that we’ve dealt with, and being able to tour Europe, was such a surreal experience. I came back to ComfortZone on the flight back like, ‘This is the reason.’ I was damn-near bawling.” Now, a few years and many life experiences later, Saba is stern in employing a classic Jay Z line: "N****s want my old s**t," buy my old album. His older projects are to thank, not to imitate.
The first sign of Saba’s sonic rebirth was the release of Bucket List’s first single, “Symmetry.” Inspired by the notion that symmetrical faces are deemed the most beautiful, the song is a melodic ode to finding one’s better half. But more importantly, it was the rapper’s way of letting his fans know that Bucket List would be different from his previous opuses. “I was 17, 18, 19 when I recorded ComfortZone. I’m 22 now, so I’m in a completely different space. And I think it improved. I’m sure there will be somebody who won’t, and I embrace that guy. That’s OK.” There he goes again, ever the optimist, ever grounded, as superstardom waits in the wings.
As holding onto his roots becomes more important than ever, Saba makes the challenge sound non-existent. This is largely due to his support system he explains, which includes the friend who introduced him to Chance the Rapper, who has been locked up since he began to make waves. As he describes his friend’s disposition, it becomes obvious that the two are birds who flock together. “I go visit him every chance I get, and he’s always smiling. He’s not sad, he’s excited.” This is the attitude Saba has toward his impending fame.
“What do I hope is on the other side? That’s a great question,” he answers the inquiry with a smirk. “The greatest thing about pursuing art is that there’s no success indicator. I don’t know what I hope is on the other side. I hope it’s a surprise. Everything so far has been a surprise. I wish I knew, but I’m glad I don’t."
(Photos from top: Azuree Wiitala)