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Saba CREDIT C T Robert
Nine Songs

From the voices that taught him how to grieve to remedies for drug-fuelled panics, Saba talks Max Gayler through the songs that have soundtracked his life

18 February 2022, 07:00 | Words by Max Gayler

The proud owner of both a cult following of rabid fans and a deep respect from his peers in the music industry, Saba’s genreless approach to songwriting and world creation on his latest album Few Good Things is further proof of the polymath’s significance.

People talk a lot about artists who “never miss” in the music industry. A lot of names are thrown away but if there’s one that seems to resonate across all tastes and preferences, it’s Saba. His 2018 album, Care For Me personified his grieving sonically and struck a chord with a scene of hip-hop and R&B that was ready for something that blended heavy lyricism with intelligent melodies and experimental production.

“Honestly, it’s really easy to fall victim to trying to put music together and release music just to keep up with the times,” he tells me via a Zoom call from a room in L.A. Sat in front of a tower of shoe boxes and with morning sun creeping through the window, he’s preparing to release his third album later that week. “I feel like I've studied for a test I know my professors are going to give me on Friday.”

Saba’s a student in every caveat of being so. From his famously reported 3.5 grade point average and academic scholarship to his trained ear for what makes sense musically, he’s a tastemaker and hard worker who’s proficiency in any area has taken him from local freestyle nights in Chicago to a certified gold record for the song “Sacrifices” featuring J.Cole, EarthGang and Smino.

The songs that inspired him kept him focused and were there for him when he needed them, and come together to form the inimitable sound he’s become known for. From recording covers of Bone Thugs-N-Harmony tracks as a kid to Krayzie Bones featuring on his new album, things are starting to come full circle for Saba. “All the people that are on my album, I could bump their music all day. And to be able to have these people in my network, there's no way I'm not going to take advantage of that.”

Much like his own catalogue, his Nine Songs selections are stories. Even when it comes to Future, an artist not exactly known for his subtlety, Saba chooses one of the outliers that goes deeper than the artist’s usual output.

The night before releasing Few Good Things Saba put out a message to his social channels. Within that message he dared people to listen, “to actually listen”. And by that Saba means to come in without expectation, without projecting the expectations of his past records onto his latest. What becomes extremely clear when you look at his Nine Songs picks, is that Saba practices what he preaches. Saba listens. To stories, to beats, to what people are feeling, as much as how they say it.

“They Say Vision” by Res

“This song has been in my playlist for as long as I've been able to make playlists. I think it came out in 2001 or something like that. It's easily one of my favourite songs ever made. I remember if I wanted to listen to “They Say Vision”, it just to pop up on TV, I couldn't go and search for it as I didn't know what the song was, I just knew that I liked it. I used to wait for it to come on, but it was so low key that it was rare that it did. Eventually I caught the name and it was a rap from there.

“To me, it's so unique. She has her own everything. If you watch the video she's got her own vibe about her, and if you listen to the music, she's got her own sound that's so special. I always like people that are being themselves. They're not selling some angle and there's nothing attached to it. When it's organic, y'know? Even when I was young and I was watching the video I got this feeling - this alternative, unapologetic, black girl bop that inspired me so much. The way she did her harmonies and those rhythms made it such an inspiring record. You can ask any of my friends, if you pass me the aux this is probably the first thing I'm going to play.

“It naturally happens a lot where black artists are mis-genred. Genres are always so hard to get right. It's normally about proximity. I can sing R&B, but if I'm around a bunch of rappers I'm a rap artist. Mis-genreing is an even bigger thing for black artists. People look at us and they see rap, they see R&B, they see hip-hop, and that's kind of it. So I totally feel her when I read about what she went through. It's definitely not a neo-soul song. Tyler won that Grammy for best urban record years ago, but he said that didn't make sense. People don't know what to call music from rap artists that isn't rap.

“We have to spoon feed it to people. Even with some trap shit I hear, it's the same thing. Not all trap is trap. The genre-bending nature of black music in general, and with Res, it's incredible. If someone says they're not a certain type of artist, you listen to them and trust them.”

“Notorious Thugs” by The Notorious B.I.G. feat. Bone Thugs-n-Harmony

“This song is single-handedly how I became a rapper. I had overheard this song before, maybe my mom played it or something like that. But one day I was in a room with my brother and he had this shit on a mix CD with a bunch of other songs. We were playing NBA Live 2003 with Jason Kidd on the front and I put that song on repeat like 20 times. I couldn't believe their verses sounded like that. It wasn't that I didn't like rap before that, but I just didn't care that much about music or appreciate how someone could be lyrical. But once I heard this song, I understood what was exciting for me.

“It's like everything that happened in that song is unexpected and it really builds out in this crescendo form. It almost opens a whole world. Even when I was 8 I had always heard stories of how great Biggie was, but with this song I realised he was doing something different. Then when Bizzy Bone comes in, that's when I feel my world of rap was introduced.

“It was like, ‘Yo, I've never heard anybody sound like this.’ You can barely understand him and the cadence keeps switching. Then he'll stop rapping and start this melodic singing. That shit was, I don't know, it was like combining Tupac and Michael Jackson or something like that. It was the greatest combination of things for me as an eight-year-old. Krayzie Bone comes in after that and just the way they were rhyming words, it was undeniable to me. I'm like, ‘Yo, this is it, this is music.’

“I had a lot of older friends in my neighbourhood when I was growing up. I ran across the street to this kid, I think he was like 18 or something, and he had two of their CDs. He had Creepin' On Ah Come Up, their first album, and E. 1999 Eternal, their second album. He let me borrow them and that was it, it was on repeat, and from that moment I made the decision to start rapping. The first raps I recorded maybe a few months later, they were all just Bone Thugs-N-Harmony raps. I was just rapping what I heard.

“From the conception of "Come My Way" in 2018, when I first started writing it, it felt like the nostalgic vibe of a Bone record. That's what I got from it anyway, and I wanted to elevate that as best as I could. From the second we made that I knew I wanted Krayzie Bone on it. It took a couple years to make it happen, but to me, making that shit happen made the album. That's a dream collab for me, especially because that's why I'm here talking to you now.”

“Life Is Better” by Q-Tip feat. Norah Jones

“This song. Man, I could go really in depth, but I won't go too in depth. What I will say is this. I had a bad drug experience in 2014 and I was freaking the fuck out. Freaking the fuck out. And this song got me back to myself. I actually haven't listened to it for a while, but there was a moment between 2014 and maybe 2018 where every time I heard this song I'd just bawl. I could be in the happiest mood and if this song came on I'd just start crying.

“It's attached to such a special memory in my brain now where it's ‘I'll always love and appreciate this record’, because I was out of my body. I was gone. There was no Saba for a minute. And it's really such a beautiful record. This song is really just his appreciation of hip-hop and that to me is the thing that changed my life and the thing that saved my life. I connected with it so much and it immediately gets me emotional.

“Norah Jones is so good on this. The harmonies on this thing are crazy. One of the biggest things about Q-Tip is that he's so musical. Even the early Tribe shit. “Bonita Applebum” and that type of stuff is so musical with what they're choosing to sample. It's jazzy and just an immediate vibe. And listening to this record it feels like the descendent of all those records. It's just a really beautiful hip-hop record.”

“Veteran’s Memorial Pt. 2” by Prodigy

“Prodigy is one of my favourite rappers and this song was special to me, because I discovered it at the time I was grieving. I had lost my uncle and this was a song that brought me comfort. I was repeating it and repeating it and it helped to understand some of my own emotions attached to the loss of my uncle.

“When a song is helping you to heal, those types of songs always have a special place in your heart. Especially when it comes from one of my favourite rappers. Not just this song, but a lot of Prodigy records are gonna stick with me in a big way. But this one in particular helped me with the grieving process so it gets an immediate nod on the list.

“I'm for sure a Mobb Deep fan, but my fandom only goes as far as the first album. That first album is so, so good and they've got one of the best beat selections in hip-hop, period. There's this album they've got with “Survival Of The Fittest” on there, The Infamous. Every beat on this shit is a fucking classic. Both Prodigy and Havoc have such a good ear for production and even this “Veteran's Memorial Pt. 2” beat is more simple than a lot of their complex shit. But this song captures the elements of this record so clearly. It's put together so well.”

“Codeine Crazy” by Future

“This is literally my favourite Future song. And I got a lot of favourite Future songs. It's really between this and a song called "Real Sisters". Maybe I should have put that one because I got a story for that one. I crashed a car listening to that song. No, wait. “Codeine Crazy” is more important. That song to me is some of my favourite pure rapping from Future. Both Young Thug and Future have the craziest flow switches. There's a part in this song where the beat drops out and the way he keeps the flow alive is like he is the beat. It's just really impressive.

“It's another one where you can hear his emotion. This song is damn near like six minutes. It's long as fuck, but it's so good. I feel like he did four verses or something on this. This song immediately brings me back to 2014 riding around with my cousin and Squeak listening to the Monster tape. It brings me right back to the moment and it's clearly a special record. This is the record that made me listen to everything Future did after this. This is when I joined the Future hive.

“One of the cool things about artists like Future, who have released just tons of music, is the pressure of entry is lower. You just get in where you get in. You can miss a couple and come back whenever you want. Based on the longevity of his career and how much he puts out, he's gonna have something in there for everybody.”

“Otha Fish” by The Pharcyde

“I discovered Pharcyde just a little bit after I discovered Bone Thugs-N-Harmony. My dad had one of the classic iPods with the circle in the middle, and he had the Cydeways album, which is their best-of album. That's when I fell in love with them. I always heard "Runnin’" and I always liked that song, but it was a similar thing to the Res record. You caught it when it was on TV, and then you didn't hear it when it wasn't. So having my dad's iPod for a few hours meant I could listen to a lot of their music.

“When I got to college and I was a freshman commuting, I would listen to this song every day. This was also a time when I was going through my own shit in terms of relationships and this song spoke so well to what I felt I was experiencing. It's another record that'll stick with me because it helped me feel better.

"Otha Fish" is one of those songs that stood out to me because of its smoothness. Everybody that's on this list are people who inspire me, but one common thing is they're all people who are unapologetically themselves and that's always something that's really important to me. There's a lot of great records but I don't like stuff that fits in, and when I think of Pharcyde that's what it is. It's the far side.

“When I think of Gangsta rap, I think about when something or one sound is popular, and it's so easy to become something that you're not. And what I really appreciate about a group like Pharcyde is they're just themselves. On "Runnin’'' they're talking about running away from all types of shit, so it's like, ‘I feel like I connected a lot more with this.’ I could have easily put an Eazy-E song on here or N.W.A because I grew up with that shit too, but I feel like this stuff connects with me in a way a lot of other shit doesn't.”

“Chicago” by Sufjan Stevens

“I actually don't remember how I got introduced to this song, but I was in high school. I'm really inspired by him. He's a really great writer to me and his music just has that feeling of nostalgia. It makes you miss something. It inspired me to reflect whenever I listen to music and sometimes that can be sad, sometimes that can be good.

“He's able to write emotions and stories really well and they're not super lengthy lyrically. He knows how to get to the point. He has this lyric that says, "I fell in love again / All things go / All things go". It's just so hard to me. That shit is cold, but I'm inspired by his writing.

“That Illinois album he did is a really cool album; conceptually, sonically and how it's written. I've never heard anything like that. This is gonna be another one of those where I don't know the genre. This shit feels like a musical or a movie. When even the instruments can tell stories you've instantly got me hooked.”

“Jump” by N.E.R.D.

“It was between this and "Fly Or Die". This was the music that made me feel seen as a teenager. When I was going through that angst phase and it was like, ‘I'm mad and I hate everything, I hate everybody and I don't want to be at school’, this album helped make me feel like what I was going through wasn't just me.

“I think of the jump a lot and I refer to that concept a lot with my friends. Even right now I'm out here in L.A with a bunch of my friends and what I describe that as is a jump, not a move. I think that's because of this song. A move is planned and makes me feel like we're going to uproot. We'll take everything that is our home and go somewhere else and plant new seeds. But I feel like what we're doing is a jump, so when I think of this song it speaks to being misunderstood.

“I had this shit on repeat for like a year straight. I was either a freshman or a sophomore, but it was the most I ever felt like I hated school, my scholarship, or anything in my life. I was on some teenager shit, you know what I mean? The scholarship that I had required a lot from me. I had to maintain a certain grade point average, I had to do a certain amount of extracurricular activity, I had to volunteer. It was asking a lot out of me and the teenage thing to do is to hate shit.

“The cool thing about this list is there may be songs like this, that I don't listen to every day, but I know how much I connected with them at some point. Bro, there was so many songs I was actually sad to leave out.”

“Running Away” by Roy Ayers

“This shit just instantly takes me back to being a child. A real child, before you had memories type shit. See, I was raised by my grandparents and in their house this was on all the time. I used to love it because I thought they were saying "Scooby Doo". I was watching that show every day, so it stood out to me at the time. Then coming back to it as an adult I fell back in love with Roy Ayers.

“I was trying to learn samples and I was looking up classic hip-hop samples and shit like that. “Bonita Applebum” used the "Daylight" sample, and that's what got me hooked on Roy Ayers and the RAMP collective he was doing. I am always bumping shit from the ‘70s, throughout my day in the house that's the soundtrack to every day here.

“To me, Roy Ayers is my favourite artist from that time. He incorporated jazz, funk, and soul. He's another one of those genre-less artists who could really do anything. His chord progressions, the way he constructs and arranges, those are things I still study. I try to bring that stuff into my own music.”

Few Good Things is out now
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