Album Look Back #3: Saba’s ‘Care for Me’

Honestly, where would I be without Last.FM. I stopped using it for a couple of years and started using it again recently – about 3 or 4 months ago – to keep track of who and how I was listening. And it’s really helpful in moments like this when I’m trying to remember when I started listening to someone, especially someone as special to me as Saba.

It was October 2014. I was a junior in high school. Not too long before that, I had been introduced to Chance the Rapper through Tumblr. At that point, 2013ish, I didn’t often stop to listen to music on Tumblr. I have trust issues when it comes to listening to music, and I don’t take recommendations from a lot of people. However, the cover of Acid Rap (2013) was just so vibrant and beautiful that I couldn’t stop help myself. After that, I spent the next couple of months thoroughly introducing myself to Chance’s Chicago peers, including Noname, Vic Mensa, Mick Jenkins, and Saba. Saba came out as one of my quick and clear favorites. At that point, I was very much unconcerned about themes and all of that; I just wanted to hear good raps. And he provided that.

But as I got older, I started paying attention more. Of course I wanted (and still want) something that sat in my heart and made me wanna dance, but I also started to crave things that made me think. Saba’s Bucket List Project (2016) added to a list of the few projects that I had listened to by that point in my life, that allowed room for both good raps and thoughtful raps. The album glides through conversations about food insecurity, police brutality, and our collective “American Hypnosis” with ease, while introducing the listener to Chicago through the voices of people from there. It’s a brilliant project, and I used it in many a school writing assignment.

And Care for Me is just as brilliant.

The album begins softly, with the almost lullaby beginning of the theMIND-assisted “BUSY / SIRENS,” in it, Saba describes the difficulty of being lonely and the guilt that comes with being busy all the time. He expresses a want to have the people he loves closer to him, but he also notes that it’s hard to have time to be with them in meaningful ways. Most importantly, in the song, Saba introduces us to one of the main characters on the project: his cousin Walter “Walt” Long, whom he lost in February 2017 to a fatal stabbing in Chicago. The more Walt-centered part of the song opens up with a very beautiful police siren-esque transition, where Saba blends conversations around racial profiling and his cousin’s death to show the parallels between these two spaces of death for black boys. It’s absolutely heartbreaking and wonderful at the same time. Saba uses the remaining songs on the project to pay tribute to Walt’s memory and to allow grieving and healing space for himself as he reckons with things that have happened in his past.

The following track, “BROKEN GIRLS” speaks to Saba’s past infidelity and the ways that he tried to fill his heart up with girls who were hoping to do the same with him. His inability to love himself and them deeply (as they struggled to do the same) makes these relationships unhealthy and unsustainable. But it’s the incompleteness that makes Saba feel whole; he “[fetishes their] problems” and heartlessness, while also recognizing how dangerous it is for him to be so emotionally and physically dependent on these girls.

I’ve talked EXTENSIVELY about “LIFE” in my senior thesis, so I’m gonna just copy some of that here (gotta self-preservate 🙂 ):

An important point that Saba makes in this song, and in the album as a whole, is how black bodies are conditioned to work towards self-removal. It isn’t as explored in the song as the extrapersonal deaths, but he touches on the role that addiction can play in aiding that mortality. Black bodies can’t exist as black people if society doesn’t recognize them as such, but they also can’t exist of they don’t recognize themselves as such. The depletion of the black body, both physical (“Momma mixed the vodka with the Sprite”) and mental (“I still go to social functions even though I’m so anti”), work in tangent with the work that is done more broadly by the state (Saba). Living in an environment of constant sociopolitical, economic, and racial stress and neglect is a condition that calls for a coping mechanism. Black folx living in Chicago experience “mood and depressive disorder hospitalizations” 22.1% more than the population of Chicago as a whole, “behavioral health hospitalizations” 102.5% more than the population of Chicago as a whole, and “schizophrenic disorder hospitalizations” 45% more than the population of Chicago as a whole, while experiencing “drug overdose deaths” that are 14.2% higher than the population of Chicago as a whole (Chicago Health Atlas).

And this is all happening in areas that have limited access to mental health resources and mental health conversations. The deaths from or use of drugs or alcohol aren’t statistically directly related to the mental health of black folks living in Chicago’s South and West sides, but Saba makes connections in his life and the lives of the people in his community between what they experience, what they feel, and how they cope.

In the final iteration of the hook, Saba addresses the normalization of black pain in two simple words: “that’s life” (Saba). Everything that he mentions in the song up until that point relating to his personal pain and the collective pain of black bodies in his community and in the nation get characterized as something that black bodies are destined to go through. We’re destined to experience loss at a young age; we’re expected to be lost at a young age. We’re destined to experience addiction, depression, and a yearning for “happier days” (Saba). As social media continues its prevalence in our lives, the “rapid, deliberate, repetitive, and wide circulation on television and social media of Black social, material, [psychic, and physical] death” runs the risk of causing our desensitization to the suffering of black bodies, even if the intent is to do the opposite (Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being).

Tamar Ballard, I Hope Y’all Hear Me: Chicago Hip-Hop and Counter-narrative

The album’s next three songs – “CALLIGRAPHY,” “FIGHTER” and “SMILE” – bring in more explicit mentions of that healing I mentioned earlier. In “CALLIGRAPHY” Saba talks about the importance of not continuing to run away from the things that hurt him, “FIGHTER” finds Saba and Kaina confronting the exhaustion of being a fighter (metaphorically and literally), and “SMILE” gives a piece of the “sweet Westside Chicago” that Saba grew up in, allowing us to see some of the beauty of the family and the place he grew up in.

The album’s Chance the Rapper-assisted “LOGOUT” is cautionary tale about allowing the internet to be such a overbearing part of our lives. He talks about the feeding and fending off of insecurities, the personal attachments that we have to celebrities, the fear that folks have of disappearing when they go offline, and the moments that we miss by staying glued to our screens (a sentiment that is borrowed from the project’s first track).

I don’t have bunch to say about “GREY” other than that it’s so so good. There’s a moment at the end of the song where the tempo picks up and it’s just (chef’s kiss x3)

"Action, I ain't for the talking
Ain't for the fame but the fortune cool
Alterin' the altitude
Offerin' the thought for food
Authoring that art that move, mm
Carefully editing every word
Everything got to be charity
Give it my all, these melodies therapy
I keep it thoroughly, PIVOT the legacy
How could you not be moved?
I don't give them an option to, mm
Don't nobody want to be great
Everybody want to be seen
And nobody want to be quiet"

Saba, "GREY"

As the album comes to a close with “PROM / KING” and “HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME,” Saba’s relationship with Walt comes back into focus. We learn about how a prom date works as a moment that changes the trajectory of their relationship for the best, and we learn the other little moments of brotherhood (cousinhood?) that they had growing up together. But I think most importantly, we learn how protective Walt was (sometimes overly so per Saba) and how much they looked out for each other. A protection that Saba wasn’t able to offer his cousin in his greatest time of need. Again, it’s such a heartbreaking song, but Saba is such an amazing storyteller. The listener is brought so intimately into the moments of this song. Did I already mention Saba was brilliant?? And the sample of Walt from one of his songs at the end of this song???? (chef’s kiss x6)!!!!

The album ends with “HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME.” And I honestly think it’s the perfect ending to this project. It’s a mournful song – one where Saba embodies Walt’s After Death – but it’s also what brings a sense of hope. The album is a reminder to us and Saba that when the folks that we love pass on to whatever exists after this life, they’re good. They are brought into something more beautiful than we could ever imagine. It’s a reminder that we have the responsibility to continue to LIVE regardless of how difficult it will be sometimes. An absolutely perfect ending.

I spent a lot of time with this project, while writing my senior thesis (I wasn’t using Last.FM at that time, so I can’t tell you how many times I listened to it but it was a lot lol), but it’s still just as wonderful as the first time. Saba is such a talented artist. He uses his instrumentals and vocals perfectly to tell stories that engulf you completely, while allowing you space to sub in your own moments. This project is so so special. And I’m so honored to listen to it again and again.

Featured Image Credit: https://pitchfork.com/reviews/albums/saba-care-for-me/


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