August 5, 2014

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Kyle Ellison loves the Top Gun soundtrack

A breakout hit on the scale of Chance’s Acid Rap doesn’t just burn bright and fade away, its embers continue to crackle and spark. Eventually they’ll settle, but in the meantime it’s just as likely that the wind will change and reignite flickers into flames. Before I run out of fire metaphors I’ll cut to the chase; Saba’s ComfortZone is a post-Acid Rap tape from Chicago’s West Side – a reference point that is both a help and a hindrance.

It’s easy to get lazy with comparisons, so let’s do this one justice. Both Saba (19) and Chance (21) are young’uns from the Chi of around the same age. They’re equally prone to singing as well as rapping, and they’re both the figurehead of their own crew, Pivot Gang and Savemoney respectively. They’re good kids from the Kendrick mould, rapping about their city’s violence from the inside out with the kind of sad, poignant observations they shouldn’t be old enough to share. When they’re not doing that, they’re rapping about family, friends and Nickelodeon. They’re not without their differences, but ComfortZone and Acid Rap occupy very similar sonic spaces – a combination of brightly coloured instrumentation, jazzy piano melodies and jittering rap drums. Not every song, but certain songs could easily make a natural jump from one tape to the next – Saba even makes an appearance on Acid Rap single ‘Everybody’s Something’.

Saba wasn’t a born star – he was the quiet one in school who found his voice later through music. He’s abnormally focussed for a kid yet to turn 20 and he doesn’t smoke or drink – all very 21st century rap traits presumably designed to make me feel lousy. On the mic, though, he’s far from shy, weaving in and out of his mostly self-produced beats with confidence and flexibility. He’s been known to perform Bone Thugs’ ‘Crossroads’ at shows which feels like a clue, helping to explain how at-ease he is when slipping effortlessly in and out of melodies. Often he’ll rap too fast and trip himself up, as on opener ‘Timezone’, the delivery at times underdeveloped and the words unclear. The point is that he’s trying things, and if something doesn’t come off he’ll mumble through and come back stronger.

Songs like ‘Burnout’ and ‘Welcome Home’ typify the project’s best moments, telling localised stories of childhood stresses, toughening up on public transport and a school that writes off its students. “Bitch you hate your job,” he replies when his teacher treats him like a statistic, the line coming mid-flow, sounding breathless and affected. ‘For Y’all’, which is a dead ringer for Chance’s ‘Chain Smoker’, also sees Saba using his range to full effect – his voice zipping around imaginatively over a simple piano melody. However it’s Tree who steals the show, turning up for a tender third verse of childhood friendship that manages to say so much in so little space. The duo in his story plot their rise together, drink Red Stripes on the corner, get into an argument under the red glow of police lights, run away and part on loving terms. “In the end though, I wanna see you in the end zone,” he finishes – it’s a beautiful thing, and honestly this tape is worth downloading just to hear it.

Saba himself is just as ambitious on ‘Marbles’, a song about his step dad told in three stages. It does a good job of channelling childhood feelings at their most irrational and intense – one minute consumed by hatred for mum’s new boyfriend and the next watching him work in awe. This is accomplished storytelling, but not every song is so successful – hooks are often not quite there, punchlines miss their mark and ideas are repeated a little too frequently.

As a writer and a rapper, Saba is still finding his feet and a voice that he can call his own. Even so, he’s taken his time over ComfortZone, which is sequenced and presented with the attention to detail of somebody who cares. That kind of perfectionism can take you far. When Chance was 19 he made the equally patchy 10 Day – Saba would do well to emulate what followed, but he must do it on his own terms.

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