In late 2014, I was incredibly homesick: I’d just left Chicago for college out of state, and I was struggling to adjust to a new campus and an immediate world that looked vastly different from what I was used to. Treated like an outsider, I yearned for pieces of home. Luckily Soundcloud recommended Comfort Zone, the second mixtape by Chicago rapper Saba, which detailed his surroundings and experiences growing up in Austin and finding his voice. As he talked about his native west side, I was transported to my own neighborhood on the far south side; I felt moments of ease as I rediscovered my own personhood, even on unfamiliar public buses.

My connection with Comfort Zone, as well as with Saba’s later projects, is something I share with many other people. Since 2014, Saba has released Bucket List Project (2016), Care for Me (2018), and a long string of singles, all of which have touched the masses in myriad ways. On Friday, February 4, he drops his third studio album, Few Good Things—and like much of his music, what it makes clear more than anything is his immense love for Chicago and his complicated relationship with the city that helped him blossom. 

How do we continue to love and nurture a place that’s not just given so much to us but also taken so much away? How do we commit to a path of growth when grief feels incomprehensible, insurmountable, and never too far from another visit? We dream and we hold onto the small joys and wonderful people that make each new day at least a little worth it.

Janaya Greene: Congratulations on the album. It’s really beautiful. You worked on Bucket List Project in LA. On the Few Good Things track “One Way or Every N**** With a Budget,” you speak about how you spend a day at home, which is now in LA. Was moving there mostly career driven?

Saba: It was only career driven. To be honest, I don’t even like to say that I live here. I always say I’m back and forth between Chicago and LA. I think with as much time as I spend in Chicago—like, there was a month where we just went to Chicago literally every weekend. Because things like that happen, it’s hard to feel so rooted in LA that I don’t consider myself to still be in Chicago. But I think because this is where I’m paid, to have a roof over my head, then I guess technically I live here.

“Survivor’s Guilt” is one of my favorite songs on the album. I think it’s really different from a lot of your other work. How long have you known G Herbo?

I met G Herbo in 2015. I was opening the show for him and Twista. Him and his whole entourage, they just showed us a lot of love. They made us feel real comfortable and at home backstage. Twenty-fifteen was a very different time, where nobody really knew who I was. So it just seemed like it went more into his character. It felt like it wasn’t no egos and nothing backstage—everybody was welcome. Since then we stayed in tune, and we got to reconnect. I’ve been trying to do a record with him for a long time, so I was glad we were finally able to work it out for this album.

Few Good Things track “Survivor’s Guilt” features G Herbo.

Your grandfather tells a story that’s interwoven throughout the album. What was the importance of including him and his story?

The album for me acts kind of like a generational dialogue. As I was writing a lot of the songs and thinking of the stories that I wanted to share—before I even thought of the concept to involve my grandfather—he’s somebody who I was thinking of. My grandparents in general—because as I’m getting older and as I’m experiencing more things and more life, I’m realizing a lot of things that I’m experiencing now, they experienced in the 60s and 70s, in very different ways than what’s happening right now. I wanted to talk to him and learn from him and just give perspective. We started having open discussions, and I told him I wanted to interview him and learn some of our family’s history. I don’t want to take that for granted while I got them here. I want to get as much information out of them as I can.

Where is he from in the south?

He’s from Houston, Texas. In that clip [at the end of “Survivor’s Guilt”], he’s referring to a woman who was in Chicago, who was hiring his mom. And she told his mom that she would give her a train fare to go back if she didn’t like Chicago. That’s how my family ended up in Chicago in the first place. I thought it was important to include that, based on how much of our roots are in Chicago—it was cool to get the story of how we even got there.

That’s so interesting that he’s from Houston, because I’m so used to so many of our great-grandparents being from really small, more rural towns. Maybe Houston now is different from what it used to be.

My grandma’s from a rural town in North Carolina, so, you know.

It’s a range. A lot of people, Black people especially, will relate to “Fearmonger”—being financially responsible for loved ones and always fearing not having enough, especially when you’re barely making it. You also talk quite a bit about abundance on the album, and not just financially but the abundance of your family and all Black folks just existing, given our history with enslavement. 

To me, you’ve conjured or created abundance in your life through your music, even before fame. Would you agree with that? Do you think you’ve learned that from your loved ones, even if the abundance in their lives looks different from yours? 

Yeah, absolutely. It’s a feeling. It’s a fleeting feeling, but you know it when you’re experiencing it. Sometimes you take it for granted, because I don’t think abundance is based on reach or on success. Abundance can just be in the company that you have and people that are around. Throughout the album, we kind of explore that concept, because it’s not just money and success that you can take for granted. You can take people for granted; you can take a time period for granted. With the way the last couple years have worked, we all realized that we’ve taken everyday things for granted. Those are some of the concepts when I think of abundance, where my brain kind of goes.

At left, art for the Few Good Things singles “Stop That” (top) and “Fearmonger.” At right, a still from the Few Good Things short film, directed by C.T. Robert. Credit: Courtesy the artist

Also through dreaming, you’ve created abundance. It felt like you were imagining a lot on the album, especially in “Make Believe.” Is it still important for you to dream, even with how far you’ve made it?

Absolutely. That’s what the life-changing element for me has always been. Being able to look at a situation and able to be in a situation, and just using your imagination to create a new reality. I think the older we get, the less imaginative we become, the more we get complacent with where we are in life, and we kind of stop reaching for those stars. For me, I never want that to change. So this album also works in a sense to just remind myself of that. Being imaginative—it’s so easy for that shit to get lost. But the older you get, the more pressures of the world, the more people expect something from you. 

When I think back to when I was like, five, six years old—before we experienced a lot of the more negative aspects that come with adulthood—it’s like, man, we used to dress how we wanted to dress, we used to listen to what we wanted to listen to, and we were so much more in tune with ourselves. Everybody was creative and an artist, and everybody had these huge dreams of being an NFL player, astronaut, president, or some crazy shit, and nobody was there to tell them that they couldn’t do that. That’s the space that I like to try to keep myself in.

In “A Simpler Time” and “Soldier,” it’s really clear that you’re thinking about the future and dreaming of a more fruitful world for possibly your children one day—kind of pulling from those cherished moments that you talked about. When I talk to my friends, we always talk about how, no matter where we live, no matter where we are in life, if we have kids, we want our kids to grow up in better circumstances than we did—but we still want them to be very Chicago and understand our Chicago, if we can help it. What are three things that will be nonnegotiables for the world you’d create for your kids one day, if you were able to craft it to your imagination?

First, it would be based on that last question, where we keep them creative and able to be as imaginative as possible—inspiring and encouraging all acts of imagination. Safetiness is pretty nonnegotiable—growing up in a safe environment, where they don’t have to feel that pressure of “Will I make it home?” and shit like that, that kids shouldn’t even really ever have to think about. Lastly, this is some real parent shit, but I would definitely have to limit the amount of screen time. That would be a rule, because I think that that works in a similar way as putting false expectations, putting false negativity—just like unnecessary opinions—into children. So those are the three things that I think when I think of being a parent one day or anything like that. Those things that just keep circling in my mind.

When you rap about kids, are you rapping from the perspective of family members? Or are you literally thinking about a family one day?

I’m not rapping from the perspective of family. I’m rapping as myself and imagining the world. When [Pivot Gang] wrote “Soldier,” that was November of 2020. It was a time when everybody’s getting up with their family, they’re going back home, but everybody’s scared out of their mind of going home. It had me thinking about if I decide to one day start a family, what that would even look like. Especially since we were already worried before there was a whole extra pandemic on top of that.

Saba’s video for Few Good Things track “Stop That,” directed by Jared Royal and C.T. Robert

We’re all human and have had moments where we feel like we failed. In “If I Had a Dollar” we see you also have had your moments. I don’t think many supporters would look at you and necessarily think of your failures instantly. What do some of those failures look like?

“If I Had a Dollar” offers perspective on failure, because I think all failure is is perspective. If you believe you failed, then you failed, and if you believe that you didn’t fail, then you didn’t fail. I think more often than not, failure leads you to your next victory, so it’d be hard to really view failure as failure and not just like lessons or steps that get you to where you want to be. 

When I think of my career, I think people don’t necessarily realize how nuanced even the idea of victory and failure is in something like art. It’s hard to really quantify if you’re doing well or not. People look at certain things, and they’re like, “Oh, this person, they’re touring, or they have a career,” and like, that’s cool. They are a success, but you don’t really know how that person sees themselves. Where they are now could be super far from where they want to be, and they might look at that as failing. It’s really just perspective. In that song, that’s kind of the whole point of it to me, to kind of break it down. I don’t view myself as having a lot of failures. That’s not to say they didn’t happen, just more so to say that I just don’t view them as failures.

The lyrics “Take a loss, take a win, take a breath, take it in,” to me, that’s a very strong meditation. Is this how you meditate? Do you meditate? What does meditation look like for you outside of music?

I wish I meditated. I usually meditate when I’m flying. Certain things that give me slight anxieties and shit like that, I’ll throw the Calm app on, listen to the beach or something like that, and just have to kinda calm my body down. 

It’s not only flying. There are a few moments where I do have to do that, but I think I meditate more out of necessity and not out of just practice. When I think of my goals for the person I would like to become, I would like to meditate as practice as I wake up every day or every other day—to actually practice meditation.

Saba: “I focused a lot on this album on being my truest and purest self, without trying to think of outside influence, outside suggestions, outside criticism, outside anything.” Credit: Qurissy Lopez for the Chicago Reader

I want to send my condolences to you and your loved ones regarding Squeak’s passing. [Editor’s note: Squeak was a DJ and producer in Saba’s crew, Pivot Gang, and younger brother of Pivot rapper Frsh Waters.] Are you comfortable answering where you were in working on the album when he passed?

I’m down to answer it, but I just want to make sure that this article doesn’t become that. I’ll get asked questions like this in the interview, and then the whole headline kind of becomes that. I don’t mind sharing that because honestly, to me, it’s a great story. Squeak heard this whole album in full. The only thing that wasn’t there yet was the G Herbo verse. He got to hear all of this shit. It was done. It was supposed to come out way, way earlier. His passing is actually the reason why we did delay it. 

But yes, Squeak got to hear all of this shit, and it was a really beautiful moment that’s gonna live with me forever. It was last summer. The album’s been done for so long, and it’s just been trying to figure out everything else to accompany the album and doing all of the behind-the-scenes stuff to make sure that it comes out right, which is just a part of doing it independently. I tried to allow myself the proper time so that it doesn’t feel like less than, just because it’s independent or whatever. Squeak was able to hear all of this shit. Squeak was in the studio with me when we were mixing and mastering it. So you know, he is well aware of what I feel is about to happen.

Few Good Things track “Come My Way,” featuring Krayzie Bone

Thank you for being transparent about that. In “2012” and in “An Interlude Called ‘Circus,’” there’s a lot of reminiscing about your life before fame. Grief is often talked about regarding losing people, but rarely talked about is the grief of growing up, the grief of change, the grief of new levels. What I love most about the album is you’re open about grieving certain time periods in your life, and you paint them vividly. Music is a clear outlet for how you move through grief; is music the only way you move through grief? 

I honestly don’t know the answer to that. That’s a tough one for me to answer. I don’t understand grief. I think because of the type of music that I make, I’m asked a lot about grieving, but I don’t fully understand it, so I couldn’t tell you more. Even the way you worded that question was better than what I could say.

I noticed that the album has more features from artists that aren’t Chicago based, in comparison to your previous projects. Can you walk me through how you selected the folks you wanted to include on the album?

A lot of my albums have been made in solitude. Just me and the two producers that have been working on it. But for this one, after Care for Me came out, I started coming to LA and just taking sessions with people that I was a fan of. So for me, it’s more of some fan shit, where I want to celebrate and elevate and work with people that I am a fan of. I finally had the resources, the capabilities, the outlets, the connections and relationships to get people that I look up to and people that I’m a fan of on songs—it’s just like, at the first opportunity to do something like that, I’m biting at that. So that’s how we were able to pull that shit off.

Saba in Los Angeles: “There was a month where we just went to Chicago literally every weekend,” he says. “It’s hard to feel so rooted in LA that I don’t consider myself to still be in Chicago.” Credit: Qurissy Lopez for the Chicago Reader

Would you say being in LA allows you to make those connections a little bit easier? Would it have been more difficult to get those features if you were still in Chicago?

It probably would have been more difficult to get in the studio with people. But I think honestly a lot of these people that are on the album I’ve had a relationship with for years now, and it was just a matter of the proper time and the proper alignment to get the record done. But a lot of features that are on there, I don’t know that there’s anybody that I haven’t known for at least two or three years—maybe with the exception of some of the legends, like Krayzie Bone and Black Thought. I still haven’t met Krayzie yet, but I did meet Black Thought. I met him out here. Everybody else I think could’ve happened in Chicago.

How did the idea for the Few Good Things short film come about?

Honestly I’ve been trying to do a short film for almost as long as I’ve been writing and recording music, so it’s been a long-awaited opportunity for me. Some of my favorite artists always made albums accompanied by short films, and I wanted to take a crack at it. I always had ideas that I wanted to see visually expressed in my own work. 

Like I say, the album had been done for a while, so we finally had the resources, time, and opportunity to build the rest of the world out. I connected with the director [C.T. Robert] in 2019. We’ve been working closely probably for a year to two years on it. It was a part of the album-making process, to be honest. Every time I made a song, he got it immediately with an explanation of what everything meant. We talked nonstop for months to outline and get the story together. Going into it, I knew I wanted to do a short film for the album, so there was always a visual element to lyrics that I knew I had to write.

The short film accompanying the release of Few Good Things was directed by C.T. Robert and scored by Daoud Anthony.

I really connected to it. When we think about home, we often think about the home we grew up in, which is a lot of times our grandparents’ house. That’s where we think of when we think of safety and community. You talked a bit about growing up and life changing, and how our grandparents went through the same things we’re going through now at a different time period. Has your concept of home changed? How do you stay connected to home, even though you may not be able to physically go into your grandparents’ home any longer?

For me, home is the people. That’s what makes it feel at home. The neighborhood I’m from in Chicago, a lot of my high schools closed down, one of my middle schools was closed down, my barber shop is closed down. A lot of my history in the city is leaving, but the people that made those places are still here. I think of people a lot of times when I think of home, and the good thing about people is you can just pick up the phone. I talk to all of my people in Chicago as much as I can.

The film shares how your family had to sell your grandparents’ home when your grandmother passed away. A lot of Black people are experiencing this as we grow up and as our elders pass—we become left with the decision of whether to keep it, sell it, what can you do with it, if you can do anything with it at all. Is home ownership more important to you? 

It’s for sure important to me, because we grew up with that [home]. My grandparents had their home. My grandfather, his mom had her home. I grew up in a home. I didn’t move around a lot as a kid. I grew up with my grandparents. Having that—part of it safety, part of it security—it’s just your staple. You get to be in the community. You get to know, work on, and have your plot of land. That is important, especially when you think of renting. A lot of times you’ll be renting and paying more [than a mortgage]. It’s like subscription-based things. You can buy this in full right now for $200 or you can give us $5 a month for the rest of your life, you know? It is important, and I feel like our generation is kind of realizing and finally being in positions to get land of their own.

We could talk all day about the evolution others feel in your music. What evolution do you feel in Few Good Things as a musician? 

I focused a lot on this album on being my truest and purest self, without trying to think of outside influence, outside suggestions, outside criticism, outside anything. I didn’t really consider the fan base at all making this album. I just made this album for myself, which is also to be honest how Care for Me was constructed as well. With doing that you get something that’s so personal, and so authentically you that it’s automatically super original. 

If you become more fearless with every risk that you take sonically, you become more fearless when you’re experimenting and you hear something work. I never want to contribute to the noise of modern-day career. I want to be myself and do what I like and try to give people my authentic work and hope that that is enough. On this album you can really feel that. It’s not a lot of shit coming out that sounds like it, in my opinion. My hope is that more artists are making their own music and coming up with their own sounds and not trying to just follow what everybody else is doing—it’ll inspire more people to do that, and then we can have options.

What are a few good things that are keeping you in a positive and centered space right now, if you’re in that space? 

Honestly, the space that I’m in right now is like a cloud. With everything, I’m in a limbo with the album done. Now I’m just waiting for it to be [February] fourth, to be honest. 

It’s interesting being asked that. A few good things keeping me in whatever space this is is not really a thing, more so a concept or idea—but I would say a sense of community. When I think of how I’m able to just be in whatever mindset or whatever space that my body is in at the moment, I think a lot of times when I feel like I’m going off the rails in whatever way, it’s my community that usually is able to bring me back to it. Speaking of communities, I’m doing this album right now, and all of Pivot Gang is doing something right now. We are all about to be dropping and doing stuff at the same time.

We have a really deep-rooted community even out here, man—Chicago is so deep in LA right now. My space right now is very rooted in community.

Long live Squeak

I met Squeak in Saba’s grandparent’s basement. The walls were plastered with magazine covers, the space stuffed with recording equipment and video games. A memory not easily…