Buzz around Chicago rapper Saba has been steadily building for the past few years. Aided by the release of a succession of tapes, as well as guest spots on Chance the Rapper’s last two solo projects, most notably on Chance’s single Angels from this year’s Coloring Book. With the accompanying performance on The Late Show that brought him international attention, Bucket List Project arrives at a time when Saba’s stock has never been higher. A strong enough mixtape could have sent him into the stratosphere in much the same way that his friend Chance’s 2013 tape Acid Rap did, yet Bucket List Project fails to reach the same heights. It does though confirm Saba as an artist to watch, with a catchy, confidently crafted project that sees him setting sights on greatness whilst remaining grounded in the Chicago scene that he emerged from.
Saba, like many of the generation of Chicago artists that have recently blown up - notably Noname, Mick Jenkins and Jamila Woods - makes soulful, ‘conscious’ hip hop that acts as a more melodic counterpart to the city’s drill scene. Lyrically the two genres deal with many of the same issues, albeit from different perspectives, Chicago remains one of the most dangerous cities in America, particularly for young black men. Saba documents the drugs and violence that plagues his West Chicago neighbourhood throughout Bucket List Project, on tracks like Church/Liquor Store and Westside Bound 3. On American Hypnosis he recounts his attempt to escape the detrimental cycle in deeply personal terms, solemnly disclosing his family’s struggles with addiction and incarceration, amongst the feelings of being outcast from both his neighbours and the private school that he attended on a scholarship. Music serves as Saba’s salvation from this identity crisis; ‘I hated my life until I played the piano’; and is the form through which he is able to relate to his city and his background most. He references Chicago’s rap icons Lupe Fiasco and Kanye West (Church/Liquor Store), and even gets a co-sign from Twista, another living Chicago legend, on GPS, proving his familiarity and reverence for Chicago’s musical pedigree.
Even when looking beyond Chicago, Saba makes his debt to his hometown clear. On California, a triumphant and swaggering statement of intent, he boasts, ‘I got my city behind me/I’m feeling worldwide/Next stop N.Y./Next stop L.A.’ The Billy Williams Story, one of the standout tracks of the tape, sees Saba comparing himself to a Chicago Cubs icon, declaring himself a ‘legend in the making.’ Bucket List Project floats from track to track on the back of delicately crafted, low-key instrumentals produced primarily either by Saba himself or from one of his Pivot Gang collective. Ambient pianos and understated guitar lines are underpinned by trap hi-hats; these beats aren’t revolutionary, but they’re all beautifully constructed, propelling the tape along without ever distracting from the vocals on show.
Although the conceit of Bucket List Project – Saba’s friends and family describing their bucket lists in-between songs – wears a bit thin by the end (bucket list goals include; smoking a blunt with Beyonce; degentrifying Chicago neighbourhoods; and having sex with Kylie Jenner), the mixtape is generally solid with only a few skippable tracks (Symmetry and closer World In My Hands). With Bucket List Project, Saba justifies the hype whilst still constructing a deeply personal and heartfelt story about his city and childhood. If he continues to develop and experiment more musically, expect great things to come.
Words: Nick Bedingfield