“It’s lonely at the top,” goes the adage—an adage Kendrick Lamar related to last year on his Pulitzer Prize-winning DAMN. with the lines, “Ain’t nobody praying for me / I’m on your head.” The themes of loneliness and feeling uncared for showing themselves in the art of self-reflective musicians again and again. So it’s no act of plagiarism that Chicago rapper Saba’s newest album revolves around these same themes. The feelings are deeply personal to him and are expressed with excellent first-person storytelling over the ten tracks that make up CARE FOR ME. OK, maybe there’s a little bit of stylistic mimicry with the all-caps title hearkening back to Lamar’s masterpiece. But the all-caps lettering here signifies an urgency, an SOS, as Saba sends a cry for help and attention not only for himself but for his beloved city of Chicago which desperately needs a reprieve from the pain it has experienced.
Although murder rates are trending downward, Chicago continues to be troubled by gang violence and homicide rates toward the top in the country. And some like Kanye West (is it still OK to quote him? Probably not…) blame President Obama for being “in office for eight years and nothing in Chicago changed”. But regardless of who’s to blame and whether things are marginally getting better, Saba treats his personal stories about life in West Side Chicago with a heavy dose of realism, trying to create a “really vividly painted picture” of his life experiences to bring attention to a city that needs change.
Saba knows, however, that the truth is often a heavy weight on listeners’ ears. But instead, of sugarcoating or watering down the brokenness of his stories, he sets them against soothing arrangements that often feature no more than punchy drums, bass, and jazzy piano performances (sometimes mixing in horn sections, guitars, or synths to elevate the mood). The tracks are refreshingly well arranged and serve as some of the best musical foundations of 2018.
The contemplative tone of the jazzy tracks allows Saba to consider life and death with vulnerability and clarity. Although Saba has considered these subjects on previous efforts, everything is more personal here as Saba’s cousin Walter Long, Jr. was stabbed to death in February of last year, a story Saba faces head on with “PROM / KING”. The song is an ambitiously masterful work clocking in at seven and a half minutes. Here more than ever, Saba’s first-person storytelling keeps you on the edge of your seat as he recalls milestone moments in the cousins’ relationship. As the track transitions into the “KING” section, Saba’s delivery is panicky after discovering his cousin went missing. As the beat continues to frantically build, it lands on a somber piano outro over which the late Walter himself sings the heartbreaking lines, “Just another day in the ghetto / Oh, the streets bring sorrow / Can’t get out today with their schedule / I just hope I make it ’til tomorrow.”
It’s a gut punch to be sure. But the bleakness of CARE FOR ME is necessary to make an impact. The death of his cousin forces Saba to think about his own life and mortality as he shares his paranoia on “LIFE”: “I know ‘Pac was 25 / I know Jesus 33 / I tell Death to keep a distance / I think he obsessed with me.” But the constant reality of mortality gives Saba the opportunity to really hone in on what he wants to see in his life, a continued theme of his previous album, Bucket List Project.
Here, though, he just wants companionship. “BROKEN GIRLS” outlines his need for intimacy to feeled cared for: “Found a girl, now I’m hers and she mine / And she made me feel whole, heal me / And it’s mutual and we still in love / Can’t you care for me?” But the desire for love and care comes to a climax in the free form jazz outro of “GREY” as Saba spits, “Care for me carefully / Back with more clarity…Don’t nobody want to be great / Everybody want to be seen / And nobody want to be quiet / Everything is grey.” Although delivered as a plea, Saba’s message is necessarily uplifting and therapeutic. Though everything is grey, bleak, dull around him, a care for himself and for his neighbors brings a clarity and vibrancy enough to enjoy the present and fight for a better future.