Thursday, December 13, 2018

album review: 'CARE FOR ME' by saba

Well, this has been very long in coming.

And indeed, Saba is a name that's been on my radar for some time, even despite the fact it has taken months for his album to ascend my schedule. He's loosely affiliated with many of the indie acts in the Chicago scene that I've covered - he's shown up on Chance The Rapper's Acid Rap and Coloring Book, Donnie Trumpet's Surf, and he and Noname have traded guest appearances on each other's respective projects - and while he built a fair amount of buzz off a few mixtapes, he first came to my attention proper with his 2016 debut Bucket List Project. And for the most part I did like it, but I wouldn't say it was something that really resonated with me as much as I'd like, because for as versatile as Saba was as an MC, he definitely wore his influences on his sleeve. Sure, detailed flair to his writing and he had good taste in instrumentals... but I'd struggle to say I was in a huge hurry to come back to it, and it was tricky to pinpoint why. Maybe the songs just weren't quite there yet or he hadn't quite refined his unique voice, but I did figure that'd likely come on his follow-up. And given the critical reception that CARE FOR ME has received, I had every reason to believe this would be great, so what did we get with this?

So here's the thing: this is one of those rare projects for which I can see why it's received so much critical acclaim from certain quarters, and why some critics who aren't so high on it carry those opinions - and the weird thing is that I think I might agree with all of them. What this is means is that I do like CARE FOR ME by Saba as he doubles down on the detail-rich and nuanced storytelling that has always been his biggest selling point for me... but at the same time I don't love this project, as it wears its influences all the more starkly on an uneven package that rarely brings together the focus to truly connect, a cohesive listen but a scattered one.

And since this is bound to drive the most controversy from the jump, let's start with Saba himself as an MC and those influences. And what's important to stress here is that I don't have a problem that said influences are evident - that's true about nearly every single artist, and the pedigree of Isaiah Rashad, Earl Sweatshirt, maybe a splash of Mick Jenkins and especially Chance The Rapper shows that Saba at the very least has good taste. And if he just sounded like those artists it would be one thing, but where I and some critics take notice is that Saba intentionally will bend and shift the timbre of his delivery to more closely imitate those styles and cadences to fit specific songs - and what's exasperating is that he doesn't really need to do that. When this album is at its best, when it's telling a story and embracing increasingly aggressive flows like on 'FIGHTER' or 'PROM / KING', Saba truly comes into his own and showcases the most distinct personality - the issue is that he's not consistently in that lane, and thus going on delivery alone it's hard not to hear him as a softer Earl on songs like 'BROKEN GIRLS', a more coherent Isaiah on 'GREY', or a darker, less-earnest Chance on 'SMILE', 'LOGOUT' and 'LIFE', even if he wants to avoid the comparisons on the latter song.

And you know, that'll be enough of a differentiation for a lot of people, especially when you factor in the production... which is where if I'm going to nitpick, I tend to find my toughest handups with this album. And again, I get why this album has eased back on the jazzier live elements that charactered Bucket List Project - it's aiming for a more grim, fragmented, downbeat atmosphere while still maintaining a Chicago sound with the firmer live basslines and the touches of horns that creep in, all the while letting the programmed percussion sound rougher and grimier and the mixes sinking into murkier tones. And as you'd expect the album can feel a little slower and longer, although Saba's faster flows do a solid enough job keeping the pace and when this album can switch in some live drums and more aggressive jazzy elements - the second halves of 'GREY' and 'PROM / KING' are great examples of this - it can hit a vibe I really like. But this is also where we have to talk about some of the tonal choices, specifically in the pianos and guitars that almost intentionally sound askew or off-key - which can work, don't get me wrong, but it can become increasingly hit-and-miss if they connect, especially if the production further submerges them and especially when they tack on the autotuned passages that pick up an odd graininess that I'm not sure is the best fit. The wonky bass on 'LIFE', the out-of-tune pianos on 'CALLIGRAPHY' and 'PROM / KING', and especially the bad tuning on 'FIGHTER' and 'BROKEN GIRLS', if you can't vibe with the tuning quickly or once SABA chops it up to ride, it can be hit-and-miss. And while on that subject, for as many of these songs feel like two parts, the switch-ups can be pretty hit-and-miss too, from the drippier outro to 'BROKEN GIRLS' to the pitch-shifted trap segment at the end of 'FIGHTER' that feels really tacked on to a much better song.

But I'm not going to deny that these elements don't fit the atmosphere... and this takes us to the hardest conversation about this album: the content. To put it bluntly, if there's a mood for this album it's analogous to what Earl was exploring throughout Some Rap Songs: depression, projections of strength amidst piecemeal success, and dealing with grief in the face of real losses, which for Saba comes with his cousin and fellow member of PIVOT Gang John Walt. And when this album sticks to those stories and that arc, I'd argue it hits the most success, from the missed connections and guilt that wrack the in medias res opening of 'BUSY / SIRENS' to the sunken depression of 'CALLIGRAPHY' to the truly excellent storytelling that infuses 'FIGHTER' and the final two songs of this album. 'FIGHTER' in particular stands out vividly, as Saba shows in sharp relief the fair fistfights might become unfair with his girl when she refuses to engage - we'll come back to this - all the way to perhaps the least fair fight of all - against himself. And while I usually have issues with songs like 'GREY' that rant against the exploitative music industry, I at least have to give Saba credit for acknowledging the same twisted hustle anyway that would profit off of his pain, especially given that 'CALLIGRAPHY' shows just how much of his bars serve as a coping mechanism and the industry is extrapolating it to an omnipresent feeling of melancholic grey. And while it's good to acknowledge that Saba has turned on the radio in 2018 too, I do want to highlight a persistent issue about this album: a weird defensiveness surrounding his insecurities, especially with women. 'BROKEN GIRLS' is the most immediate example and probably the weakest song on the album because of it - yes, I appreciate the balanced framing and the trauma that Saba has suffered does make his actions explainable, but by tacking on that outro it's clear he's trying to give himself an out, and while 'CALLIGRAPHY' is saying he doesn't want anybody to feel sorry for him, 'BROKEN GIRLS' feels like a betrayal of that. Then there's 'LOGOUT', another anti-social media song which brings up Chance for an underwhelming verse and doesn't quite seem to mesh with the album's themes and atmosphere as much as I'd like. But I'll give Saba this: the album ends incredibly well, first with the extended storytelling describing the complexities of his relationship with Walt - detailing a cousin his parents separated Saba from given his poorer background, the rougher crowd he hung around with and yet Saba's desire to fit in amongst them riding on sheer exhaustion, and his requirement to take public transit where he was killed - and then ultimately on a brighter note with 'HEAVEN ALL AROUND ME', offering a moment of respite from Walt's perspective as he might now be in a better place - and by extension, so is Saba.

So at the end of the day... man, this is the sort of project that I'll admit grew on me with every listen, but also hit a peak with how much I could truly love it. The writing for the most part is really strong, the flows are great, and Saba still shows a knack for thematic resonance and honesty that I think will be great for him going forward - but stylistically, I think the next big step is to find a lane that is his alone, and while I'm absolutely confident he'll get there, I hope he can find the confidence to get there as well. As such, I'm giving this a very strong 7/10 and absolutely a recommendation, even though I'd argue all the fans and critical acclaim will do more than of my criminally late comments. Definitely worth keeping an eye on going forward, so yeah, check this out.

No comments:

Post a Comment