Rapper Saba Is Ready to Represent the 'Face of New Chicago'

Photo by Bryan Allen Lamb

When Chicago rapper Saba and his fellow Pivot members share the stage, the energy is high for the seven-person-strong powerhouse. They spit fast and fiercely, passionately, passing the limelight and mic between one another. Pivot is indeed a rap group and movement, but it reaches beyond both as a brotherhood immersed in optimism.

The main ethos of Pivot is forward momentum and positivity, ideas that sit at the forefront of Saba’s musical ethos. After the release of his breakthrough mixtape, ComfortZone, in July 2014, the 21-year-old MC — born Tahj Malik Chandler — has also come to the forefront of Chicago’s rap scene; now he’s set to play his headlining NYC debut at S.O.B.'s on July 23 with an entirely Chicago lineup, a city that, as far as hip-hop goes, is hot like fire thanks to the likes of Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, and more.

Music in Saba’s family reaches far back. As you trace up from the roots of his family tree, you witness how deeply planted they are, stemming from his great-grandparents to his father, who is a neo-soul and r&b musician, and to his brother, Joseph Chilliams, who is also a member of Pivot. Emboldened by his family, ComfortZone became a fusion of neo-soul and rap, a postponed response to the years of music that sit neatly in Saba's history. “Music for me is so ingrained in my upbringing that whether [or not] I achieved anything at all, I would still make music and music would still be my focus,” he says.

Even though his breakthrough dropped a year ago nearly to the day, Saba has already walked a long road as a musician. Growing up, he was a shy kid. His feat of releasing five solo mixtapes in the last four years has been a direct result of his attempting to progress beyond the insecurities and discomfort he felt with himself in high school, using ComfortZone as a means to fully expose himself to his peers and listeners. The preamble to ComfortZone, GetCOMFORTable, which he released in 2012, was also saturated with the same themes of comfort and time.

With a positive message, Saba says his biggest goal is to “show as much of my life and, like, why I am the way I am." "Basically, [I want to] tell the story of Saba. But I think the idea of comfort and just that general message...I think I got everything out of that.” His latest release, “Temporary,” featuring Chicago rapper and singer Tink, waxes poetic on the notion that suffering is temporary, placing a rosy spin on the adversities we face. And simultaneously, we see a musician who, through his own efforts, has become unflappable.

“I've been trying to conceptualize ‘Temporary’ for so long...I wanted to make something hopeful," he says of the track. "I try to be as optimistic as possible, even if I'm writing about not-so-positive situations. I always wish to convey both sides of [Chicago], and both sides of myself. Everything is temporary; sometimes I feel like even death [is]. Writing the song definitely helped me deal with a lot: Obviously financial difficulties, but more so the death of my uncle, and just not trying to take all of this for granted. I am really blessed to be in the position I am in, even where I am now. A lot of people weren't this lucky, and I want to live it to the fullest. Who knows how long this will last?”

But as confident as Saba is with the message of his music, as unstoppable as we see him, and as strong as Chicago’s hip-hop scene is right now, he still has nerves. For him, there’s a lot on the line with his S.O.B.'s show, which also features Chicagoans Hurt Everybody, NoName Gypsy, and XVRHLDY, a veritable Chi-to-NYC showcase.

“I think a lot of people have been telling me how important this is and how cool this is. Because we live here, it’s nice to kind of feel like that swing of momentum to Chicago — like you don’t really know how hot Chicago is until you leave Chicago. But I think for me, it’s going to be more of a learning experience, because it’s our first time, really. It’s at S.O.B.'s...everybody goes through S.O.B.'s. I’m damn near nervous. I don’t want this shit to flop and make Chicago look bad. This is really like a Chicago show.”

According to Saba, every artist coming out of Chicago has a different buzz about them — the city treats everybody differently; no two artists garner the same reaction. Every artist is embraced in his or her own way, but at the end of the day, there is still a palpable togetherness in the city. And Saba’s hope is to remain a prominent member of that.

“I think it’s a point now where we all want to see each other win, which I think has been a problem for Chicago basically forever,” Saba says. “This hot new Chicago music is not really new, it’s always existed, but...the city’s always been so fucked up. Nobody ever really wanted to see anybody else win and everybody was always trying to get over on people, is what it always felt like. But now it’s at a point where like, we are the face of new Chicago. It feels like I’m becoming one of the kind of leaders of that, so I’m about to step up, put my man-pants on, and lead.”

Saba headlines S.O.B.'s on July 23. For ticket information, click here.

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