Saba’s 2014 mixtape, Comfortzone, was a quiet realization, music that captured the now 22-year-old’s coming of age in Chicago’s West Side neighborhood Austin with stunning, sobering realism. Neither filled with the bleak resignation of Chief Keef and the drill scene nor overwhelmingly joyful like his friend and frequent collaborator Chance the Rapper, Saba maintained a precocious mastery of his craft with windingly poetic flows over murky, subdued beats, not too far removed from Kendrick Lamar circa Section 80.
While Saba had prominent features on three of the best albums of 2016 – Chance’s Coloring Book, Jamila Wood’s HEAVN, and Noname’s Telefone, Saba is still somewhat of an unknown outside of his hometown. After spending the last two years mired down by writer’s block due to his uncle’s passing, the Chicago MC returns with Bucket List Project, an album about attempting to live life to the fullest all while acknowledging how challenging that can be.
As its title implies, the idea of a bucket list serves as the framework for the album, with most songs ending on a recorded message from a friend or family member of Saba telling him what’s on their own list. Some want to buy an apartment and rent it out to people from the neighborhood in order to reverse gentrification, others just want a meal from In-And-Out. Chance drops by to mention how he wants to learn how to play the drums to impress girls, and one of Saba’s heroes from the West Side, Lupe Fiasco, states his goal of a Nobel Prize. With a firm grasp on his mortality, Saba attempts to get at the heart of desire and happiness, even if it’s as one friend puts it, just making music regardless of who hears it.
A progeny who graduated from a suburban West Side high school at the age of 16, Saba’s mastery of poetry is on full display throughout his work. On introductory song “In Loving Memory”, he raps at a blistering speed, showing off with a remarkable sense of wordplay that doesn’t sacrifice depth for the sake of being clever. When Twista arrives on “GPS” in the ostensible role of an elder statesman giving his blessing, it feels like a natural pairing, as the two share a kinship in their talents.
It’s one thing for an artist to rep their city, but Saba excels with a vivid depiction of his hometown, filled with rich empathy and detail that gives the listener a clear understanding of his life. On single “Church Liquor Store”, he teams up with Noname for an encompassing tour of his city, where there’s a church, corner store, or funeral home on every corner. It’s a bleak portrait that comments on the effects of violence in Chicago from a lived-in experience, where “a stray bullet’ll take your first born like the tenth plague.” What’s essential is Saba’s perspective, his portrayal of a vibrant community where dreams grow and hope thrives in spite of an environment, where many of the kids he would play basketball with are “all in county.” On standout “Most”, he speaks of a generation robbed of its youth by violence, poverty, and police brutality, always on the run and losing faith. “Most people, they only want to be safe,” Saba sings, a plea for something so basic that many take for granted.
A self-described awkward loner who always had trouble fitting in at school, Saba comes into his own on Bucket List Project. Whether comparing himself to a longtime friend on “The Billy Williams Story” or proudly championing his neighborhood by repeating his mantra of “I’m from the part of the city that they don’t be talking about,” on “Westside Bound III”, his confidence stands out. He attains it through intense self-reflection, especially on the extremely personal “American Hypnosis”. In a wounding manner, he speaks on witnessing abuse in his household at a young age, learning not to blame himself for his mother’s depression, and striving instead to build a better future. Saba has frequently mentioned his choice to abstain from alcohol or drugs in song, and when he reveals it’s because he watched multiple family members die from addiction, he makes it clear it’s not a self-righteous boast.
Saba fills Bucket List Project with bold determination, and when he takes a celebratory moment on closer “California”, it’s an earned triumph. There are signs of growing pains — the slowed down psychedelia of single “Symmetry” is a limp attempt at a romantic ballad and there are a few too many references to “third eyes” that bring up echoes of “conscious” rapper cliches — but Bucket List Project altogether is an accomplished statement from the young rapper. Earlier this fall, he told the Red Eye that his goal for the album was to connect with kids on the West Side who may be going through something similar to him. In doing that, he serves as a voice for all those kids to show the world what it’s really like to grow up there.
Essential Tracks: “Church Liquor Store”, “Westside Bound III”, and “Most”