Nothing bruises the soul quite like the loss of a loved one. Unfortunately, Chicago rapper Tahj Chandler, known by his stage name Saba, is all too familiar with the pain of that wound.
On February 8, 2017, Walter Long Jr., a founding member of Chicago’s Pivot Gang rap collective who went by the moniker John Walt, was fatally stabbed in Chicago.
This tragedy cast a dark shadow over what was supposed to be a joyous victory lap in Chicago’s young artistic community: a few months prior, Saba had dropped his debut studio album The Bucket List Project to very positive reception and had emerged as one of a pantheon of young Chicago artists — Chance the Rapper, Noname, Vic Mensa, Mick Jenkins, Joey Purp, Jamila Woods, Ravyn Lenae, etc. — who were poised to take over the rap/R&B scene after successful, acclaimed releases in 2016.
John Walt was not just one of Saba’s best friends, but also a blood relative — they were cousins. On the album’s crown jewel “PROM / KING,” Saba goes into great depth, with a Good Kid, M.A.A.D City-esque proficiency for storytelling, to describe just how instrumental a part Walter played in both his adolescence and young adult life — from hooking him up with a date for prom, to performing with him at open mic events in college to promote their music.
And perhaps what grieves Saba the most is the futile nature of the loss. “Jesus got killed for our sins, Walter got killed for a coat,” he raps on the opening track “BUSY / SIREN.” He underscores his confusion and anger by juxtaposing his cousin’s death with that of the biblical figure: unlike Jesus, whose death had a greater power and purpose at play, it seems that Walter’s death was random and aimless.
For about a year, Saba kept a relatively low profile, but returned this past April with his second studio album, Care For Me, which details Saba’s attempt to process all these various emotions through his songwriting, as well as his effort to use the loss of his cousin to contextualize his life experiences.
The opening track, “BUSY,” is a direct reflection of the gloomy sadness of Saba’s album cover, which shows the Chicago rapper sitting despondently, by himself, in his grandmother’s kitchen. The song contemplates his loneliness and his seeming lack of emotional support, despite having a lot of fans and a plethora of people in his circle. Saba’s grief has left him estranged from his relationships — he continues to ghost his friends and family and justifies this by using the excuse that he’s “busy.” It isn’t until TheMind’s verse that we are given clarity as to why Saba is abandoning the very people who might serve as emotional support in such a miserable time: the appeal of alienation is that he won’t feel as much pain during their passing.
“My biggest fear
Is that I have to say goodbye another time
So I skip town on our moment, hopefully prolonging this
I don’t need nobody new to miss”
Moments like these are part of what makes listening to Care For Me such a compelling experience. Despite losing so much, what Saba has gained, to a certain extent, is a sense of clarity and wisdom. This newfound sense of clarity is what allows him to reflect openly and honestly about his disastrous dating life on the song “BROKEN GIRLS,” in which he admits that he fetishizes empty, toxic relationships as a way of both repairing his damaged ego and temporarily filling the emotional void that his depression has created (“And I know when I’m with you, or maybe when you’re with me / Even if I don’t feel a thing, for a second I feel complete”). It’s also what enables him, on the song “GREY,” to critique the music industry from a place of empathy instead of a place of opposition, as he begins to understand the financial “pressures” that influence the seemingly “bad” decisions that both artists and labels make. Grief has aged Saba’s soul, but with that came genuine knowledge and compassion.
Yet despite all this, the one thing Saba is unable to wrap his head around is the seemingly irrational nature of homicide. Talking with Genius about the inspiration of the song “LIFE,” Saba said, “A concept that I have been thinking about since my cousin had passed was just life in general, and life not meaning shit, and I thought about how somebody could not value a life…I couldn’t really figure it out for the life of me.” It’s a question that has stumped even the greatest of philosophers, and an inquisition that Saba’s newfound sagacity unfortunately can’t provide. Instead, he settles with the conclusion: “Life don’t mean shit to a nigga that ain’t never had shit.”
On the song “GREY,” Saba raps the line “Give it my all, these melodies therapy” in the third verse; I think this perfectly sums up the essence of his second album. Care For Me is Saba’s therapy; his coping mechanism; his catharsis. There’s a lot of wisdom to be gained and honest commentary on Care For Me. It’s obvious that he has unanswered questions and lingering pain, but as Saba tries to rehabilitate his broken spirit over the course of the album, he appears to find at least a glimmer of hope in the midst of all the gloom.