“I wanted it to be an album for the dreamers, like, ‘We out here!’”
Paulo Coelho’s novel, The Alchemist, tells the story of Santiago, a shepherd inspired to travel by a reoccurring dream that reveals his personal legend — an enormous treasure awaiting him at the pyramids. It’s then that the stagnant Santiago is compelled to uproot himself and chase his aspirations, setting off from home through the desert.
Thriving on the strength of his dreams and seeking to understand the soul of the world, Santiago’s path is one of progression through persistence. He advances through repeated sacrifice, seeking his personal legend and gaining knowledge and purpose through each experience. And when his journey strikes him down, even at times to near death, the once shepherd remains gallant in his pursuit.
It’s with that same fearlessness in search of dreams that 22-year-old Chicago MC Saba is operating these days. Fresh off the release of his third full-length work, Bucket List Project, he’s on the promoting, performing sprint, ducking through NYC and spreading the outreach of a tape that’s got ambition rushing through its veins.
Sitting solemnly off at a side counter in a K-Town coffee shop, he’s tucked in the cut, beanie doming his dreads and Fenty Creepers dangling from his high top. Having downed a chocolate milk before I’d even arrived, he was still working on what I’m pretty sure were the remains of a big ass chocolate chip cookie. I expressed some candid pleasantry about his solid choice of beverage, and he greeted me with something along the lines of “Man, you know my life,” a wry first impression considering the release of his new shit, a self-proclaimed autobiography founded on honest depiction, visceral exuberance, and valiant delivery.
A former honors student at the Windy City’s Columbia College, Saba claims his burgeoning influence didn’t register until the success of his music beckoned him to the road.
“I realized the more specific I am to my experience, the more relatable it is to other people. As an artist you might think ‘If I keep it broad enough it’ll be accessible,’ but I try to tell the truth in my music as close to home as possible,” he says, pausing a moment before adding, “That’s why there’s so many Westside references.”
Bigging up Chicago’s Westside proves a recurring habit on the Bucket List Project, a subconscious ritual for Saba that was first pointed out to him by fellow Chi rhymer Noname while recording his 2014 effort, ComfortZone.
“It’s really just having those experiences and being able to speak on them,” he explains. “Because this is something that I can speak on. I can speak on life in Chicago. I can speak on the Westside. I can speak on my family. I can speak on myself. So that’s what I choose to write about. And I feel like through that, other people with similar stories will connect to it.”
Saba manifests this memoirist m.o. across each page of his latest project, acknowledging, “On Bucket List I wanted to make everything specific.” Morphing through various lenses of life over a trappy, neo-soul score, he shifts topics and deliveries with fluent ease. It’s a nuanced story that’s somehow completely intuitive. It’s an approach he’s honed since he began writing and tracking music around the age of 15. It’s an approach that, in actuality, was stunted until his senior year of high school when he graduated a year later at a ripe 16.
“I knew since I was younger that I was a really dope creative writer, but I had no creative writing class,” he lamented.
He discounts a continuous cycle of book reports from his private high schooling days, ironic considering on Bucket List’s outro, “World In My Hands,” he spouts “I just put my life into some literature, like literally.” In reality, the poet born Tahj Chandler peeped his personal legend after joining Kevin Coval’s transformative Young Chicago Author’s program, and performing at Wicker Park’s YouMedia Center.
Not ashamed to plug a high school mixtape titled Born Emperors, or to once even committing the conscious cardinal sins of filler bars, he was quick to credit YCA and YouMedia as the vital catalysts of his artistic advancement.
“I think that writing has always been important to me, but it wasn’t until going to YCA and YouMedia where I really understood good writing,” he shared. “I wasn’t necessarily critiqued, but you knew what was workin’ and what wasn’t, and with poetry, you aren’t allowed those filler bars.”
Obedient to this calculated mindset towards creation, he chuckled when calling himself “over-critical” of ComfortZone, boasting that there are “glimpses of greatness,” but that “even in some of my deliveries and songwriting, it was a much safer version of myself.” Past projects aside, Bucket List stands an intrepid combatant to any of Saba’s perceived shortcomings. Tinged with experimentation, doused in bravado, and lucid in narrative, the List accomplishes Saba’s goal to showcase “undeniable growth” from one album to the next.
Photo: Tom Vin
“With poetry, you aren’t allowed those filler bars.” — Saba
Not far into his quest to the pyramids, Coelho’s character, Santiago, is introduced to the Arabic word “maktub,” meaning, “It is written.” Throughout the novel, he’s reminded of the word, and he soon realizes that fate agrees with those that pursue their personal legend with hyper focus. Pressing through obstacles like the resignation of his flock, the security of a job, and the delaying of true love, Santiago finds comfort living in the moment. The shepherd understands that the fulfillment of his destiny hinges on accepting that his path is predestined.
Saba personifies a similar silver lining in his own lore. His latest List is defined by dichotomy, weaving verses of nirvana with scenes of distress, ultimately etching a tale of someone thriving towards destiny. This contrast pervades even the title itself – the bucket list concept mixes equal parts satisfaction with morbidity. It’s a concept the Austin neighborhood native claims happened spontaneously, saying, “For me, in making the Bucket List Project, I kind of had to figure out the Bucket List Project,” while adding, “I didn’t have any idea of what my project was going to be, what it was going to be called, or anything like that.”
He applied a much more deliberate approach to albums prior, having envisioned the concept for ComfortZone in high school before dropping it at the age of 19.
“I always had the idea before I started the music,” he revealed unto me, elaborating “It’s interesting, because as a rapper, when you’re writing and you already have the concept, it just ties everything in that much more.”
A successful first stab at relevance, ComfortZone presented a shy Chicagoan proving the mic could be mightier than the sword (or the automatic). Songs like “TimeZone” and “Marbles,” which he called “One of my favorite stories I’ve ever told,” showcased accounts of poised potential that appear tenfold across Bucket List.
But as fate would have it, Saba was forced to adopt a much less premeditated method of madness for his 2016 effort. After dropping ComfortZone in July of 2014, his uncle passed three months later that October, spreading a stain on all that the artist had accomplished with his sophomore mixtape.
“As successful as ComfortZone was, I just felt like it didn’t do anything. In 2015 I was just hella sad about everything, and it was just a really rough space to be in. And to have a project like ComfortZone and not be able to enjoy it, it was just a crazy experience.”
It was that experience, he says, that helped him to “think differently,” and that experience that launched the bucket list notion. Still tainted by loss, Saba pressed on to rebound this year, crafting his uber-personal project, one that’s sparked by the beauty of someone finding life through death.
“I think Bucket List is just as much an album written by someone in mourning, as much as it is written by someone celebrating life,” he told me.
Saying he wanted Bucket List to be “an album for the dreamers,” he splatters his own personal accounts on tracks, while the likes of Lupe Fiasco, Chance The Rapper, his father, friends, and even an ex-girlfriend offer up their own list of dreams.
Fearless in his recording process, the List sports improvement in all that Saba brought to the mainstream table two years ago. He sprays Westside allusions across the Noname-assisted single “Church / Liquor Store,” refines his neo-soul on “Photosynthesis” with Jean Deaux, and goes bar for bar with the tongue Twista on “GPS,” a song he admits he “rewrote a few times.”
But no matter the track on the musician’s newest release, you can’t help but believe in his journey. The same kid that told us “My father told me that the world was mine when I was five” on “Butter” is now literally telling us the world is in his hands, and that he’s dead set on turning all obstacles obsolete.
Photo: Bryan Allen Lamb
Saba added The Right Components to his early Bucket List Project.
On “American Hypnosis,” a track Saba calls “one of the most important songs to me,” his father chimes in with his own bucket list, naming a trip to the Egyptian pyramids as a sight for both he and his son to see. The same pyramids Santiago set out for in Coelho’s novel; the same pyramids Santiago thought to contain his treasure.
But to the shepherd’s disbelief, his digging at the dunes leaves him both empty-handed and beaten, left only with the undying experiences along his journey. Then, in that moment of suffering, Santiago realizes the location of his treasure – the same tree he used to dream under back home.
Traveling back to this site, he shouts out to the alchemist he met along his quest, questioning the length and struggle of his journey, saying “Couldn’t you have saved me from that?”
He’s met with a stern no, and the alchemist says of the treasure’s location, “If I had told you, you wouldn’t have seen the pyramids. They’re beautiful, aren’t they?”
The shepherd’s true treasure lies not in the monetary value of his newfound gold, but in the experiences he acquired along his path.
The same is now true for Westside Chicago’s shepherd. Having already encountered obstacles along his own personal legend, Saba’s work is beginning to inspire others as well. And though his dreams also carry with them a sense of finality, he understands on Bucket List that prosperity lies in the pursuit.