words by Eamon Whalen
photography by Bryan Allen Lamb
“I already miss creating here,” says Saba, seated on a desk next to a turntable and drum machine. We’re in the basement of his grandparents house on the west side of Chicago, where the 20-year-old rapper and producer has lived his entire life. The basement doubles as the bedroom of his older brother, (also a rapper named Chris Chilliams) whose bed is sectioned off by a curtain towards the back of the room. But now, what used to be the go-to recording spot a few years prior for “damn near everybody” in the new class of Chicago has given way to sessions in professional studios, and the basement reflects their absence.
The room is dark, and cluttered in a typical late-adolescent way. Magazine clippings and posters span the walls and include a who’s who of possible hip hop influences, a topless Angelina Jolie and Michael Jordan doing his famous shrug. Saba explains that he often wouldn’t allow guests unless they brought something to put on the walls, now many are peeling off from years passed. There used to be couches, but several simple folding chairs remain. “You can feel the difference,” he says in a reserved, soft-spoken manner one can sense is a defining personality trait. “Sometimes recording in a big studio, you’ve had the beat for a lot longer, you’ve sat with the song. A lot of the stuff that I do here are like drafts. It’s more raw.”
It’s the day after the release of Saba’s most complete project yet, the impressively polished and revealing ComfortZone EP. “I used to be hella shy and I knew it was working against me at some point,” he says, explaining the concept of his title. “In school it was almost a good thing because I always stayed out of trouble and got good grades but it got to a point where I was like ‘I’m trying to do music but I can’t because I’m shy.’” There’s a palpable sense of satisfaction in his voice as he explains how his music has transformed his personality. “Now I talk all the time, I just met you and we’re having a full conversation,” he says.
On the EP he’s decidedly expressive, juggling a myriad of multi-syllabic cadences rooted in the style of his regional forebearers like Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony, Twista and Do or Die. He has a natural vocal inclination to melody even at his most dexterous, which he partly credits to his father, a soul singer. And much like his old open-mic friend Chance The Rapper, he grapples with trying to do right as a good kid in a section of the city where most paths lead the wrong way, critical of those that sell he and his peers short as a lost generation.
As he lists off the artists that have recorded in his basement (Mick Jenkins, Noname Gypsy, Dally Auston, Lucki Ecks) and that he used to rap with at open mics (Chance The Rapper, Vic Mensa, Alex Wiley, Kembe X) he says, “Everybody isn’t going to lead the same career and I think that’s the coolest part about it. And there’s some people that you don’t even see it and then it’s like BOOM.” When I ask if he knew an artist that fit that example, he pauses to collect his thoughts. “A lot of people didn’t expect me to do shit.”