Saba may be best known as the infectious hookman on Chance the Rapper’s jubilant “Angels,” but don’t let that distract you. His own merits have led to him being a leading light among young Chicago rappers. His solo tapes and features with other local musicians (Chance, Noname, the members of his Pivot Gang), have entrenched his name and soulful style within the burgeoning scene. A month ago, Saba dropped a new solo record, the serene, thought-provoking Bucket List Project. While the album comes at the tail end of several other acclaimed Chicago releases—many of which Saba himself worked on—Bucket List Project holds its own as one of the year’s strongest efforts— from Chicago or not.

Bucket List Project covers everything: life, death, ambition, nostalgia, faith, optimism, realism. The record is mostly Saba’s affair on both the notepad and the boards, though he’s accompanied by a few friends. Contributions come from Phoelix, Twista, and Joseph Chilliams. The music, while breezy, is not escapist. We get realistic novellas from the West Side of Chicago—songs drenched in macabre detail. A recorded message by a famous friend or a fan bookends almost every song on the album, recounting each individual’s bucket list. Some are heartfelt, some make you smile. All are profound in their own unique way.

I talked to Saba about Bucket List Project and the influences and ideas that consistently color his work. In both the album and in our conversation, a love shines through. He’s tied to home on the West Side, his friends and fans, and the music of his childhood. —Nitish Pahwa

How does it feel to have your new project out right now?

Saba: So far, so good, man. It’s been a long time in the making. It’s been a couple years now since my last release, so I don’t know, it’s just a good feeling to get it out there.

So far it’s been a great year for you and your friends from the Chicago scene. There have been amazing albums from you, Chance, Noname, and Jamila Woods. You yourself have had your fingerprints all over these records. They all have a similar jazzy, neo-soul vibe that you and Phoelix worked on together. What inspired you to bring that sound forward at this particular moment?

Saba: Neo-soul is really how I got into music. My dad was a neo-soul and R&B guy, and he made music my whole life. Growing up, it was kinda what I knew. I’ve always been drawn toward those sounds specifically. The second I decided to be a rapper, I knew that that’s what I wanted to bring to rap, that neo-soul kinda feel. And putting my own spin on it, production-wise and rap-wise, but really just bringing that feel of really musical, crazy chord progressions. That’s always been one of my goals to do with my music, and it just so happens that now other people are doing similar things. Even outside of that, people are gravitating toward that sound, so it’s kinda dope to be a part of it this time.

I rarely hear this sound in the broader scene. A lot of other popular music has a darker tone, but this sound encompasses a more ethereal vibe.

Saba: I think it’s one of those things where I just grew up loving that kind of music, so it was all second-nature to me. To produce a certain way and to make a certain kind of record. It’s dope to see it become a more popular kind of music now.

You’ve talked previously about how Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor inspired you. I know a big part of it was that he mentioned the West Side, but what else from the record really rubbed off on you?

Saba: I think the fact that it was an original record. You’ve got the Chicago scene [at that time], but then you’ve got something really similar going on with Kanye, Common, just everybody that was already out. To be the new guy, you know, people are obviously expecting you to just be a certain thing. They’re expecting you to do what they’re already familiar with. So when you come along and you sound completely original and you’re just yourself, unconditionally and unapologetically, it just makes me appreciate it that much more. Especially something like this being similar to what I’m going through now, you really can understand and appreciate it. And I think for me, Lupe Fiasco’s pen is just one of the strongest, bar for bar, that I’ve ever heard. I think he’s really under appreciated in hip-hop.

But I think just being that voice for people on the West Side of Chicago is one of the reasons I’m so drawn to Lupe’s music. Really telling it like it is. Not like Common—and I’m a huge Common fan—but [his music] was more so thinking of what the world could be like. Lupe Fiasco, to me, was a living depiction of what the world was, especially on the side of Chicago that he described. It was just a really vividly painted picture. It wasn’t too far removed from the street world for people to really understand it. I think it was nice balance. That’s one thing I try to bring to my music as well, just finding a balance and not being too much of one thing, more of really just being the truth. That’s really it. The truth is one of those things where it’s not one hundred percent fact, it just is what it is, and that’s one thing that I felt like I always got from Lupe Fiasco’s music.

I think you nailed it with the differences between Common and Lupe. I completely agree with you, although I love those Common records—Like Water for Chocolate and Be. I think part of what influenced Common is how long he’s been in the game, I mean he just released a new album…

Saba: Yeah, I’ve been listening to it. I actually really like it.

For him to be in the game so long and still making music, I think it’s incredible.

Saba: For some reason, and maybe I’ll understand it a little more when I’m older, it seems like a lot of our favorite rappers when we’re younger, by the time we get older, just become terrible. I can really appreciate Common because [the new album] sounds like a real Common record. It doesn’t sound like him trying to be something other than what he is. It’s that same sound—it’s even more refined, I would say—that he originated or introduced to us with something like Be. Because Be is one of my favorite albums, so it’s just dope to hear the new record [and hear] what the sound has become, you know?

You’re talking about representing the West Side, which I think is important since so much attention seems focused on the South Side. How does it feel to be an artist that’s speaking for that part of the city?

Saba: I think there’s so much to be done on the West Side, like it doesn’t even feel like I’m holding any light. All of the stories I’m telling about the West Side are just stories that I’ve experienced. I think there’s a lot of work to be done. It’s not like after I dropped my project, people were just like hip to the West Side. It’s still one of those things where it feels like a really forgotten part of the city. Like I can make however many songs, but I wanna do some work. I want to help. And until I’m in that position I think that’s when I’ll really have something to say to that question. So right now, I’m just focusing and trying to help out however I can, which right now is only music. Soon enough, I’ll be able to make some type of difference there.

What I find interesting about yours and Noname’s albums is how the production has that neo-soul and jazz quality we talked about, but the lyrics are much darker. What inspired that disparity?

Saba: For me, on the production side, I’ve always been into what I’m making now, but on the lyrics side, a lot of those songs are just…it wasn’t intentional, like, “Why are they writing these dark songs to these happy-sounding beats?” Being in Chicago, and being surrounded by all of these different obstacles, it’s just always on your mind. It’s hard, when you’re writing, to not think about it. So I might go into a beat or a songwriting session being in a great mood and wanting to write a really happy song, and I come out with something sad, or something involving death, or involving whichever problem in Chicago you wanna address, just because you’re living it and it’s hard to forget about it.

A lot of times, I produce first and then write, and it’s one of those situations where I’m just writing how I feel at that moment. And while that does change, it does revolve around Chicago and the state that Chicago’s in. Because you always wanna bring a change, but to bring that change, first you have to bring awareness. And that’s what we’re trying to do throughout the music.

I know that artists like yourself found inspiration from Young Chicago Authors and YouMedia, and it seems like you were able to make it a hub of creativity and expression. Is that where you got close with other artists? Did you ever figure you’d go from there to where you are now?

Saba: You know, I can have all of these great visions and great ideas and plans for myself, and try to express that to someone else, and they just don’t get it yet. And I think that one cool thing about YouMedia and Young Chicago Authors is that that’s where you can really see it. You know, before Chance was…whatever he is now…he was a local artist. And we were able to still see that, damn, this dude is about to do it. Me and Chance weren’t always cool, but I still knew that. I’ve been friends with Noname since I was 16, and I’ve been working with her since then. I’ve always known that she was gonna do great things. And sometimes it’s like…she might not even know, or the people around don’t know.

You gotta be your biggest fan, and I think for me, that’s something I’m still going through now, even dropping Bucket List. You know, it wasn’t like a unanimous, “people believe me now,” it’s still one of those things where you’re proving yourself to other people. But really, it’s a thing that you knew already, you knew you were good, you knew you were great. That’s one of the things that makes being a musician—or just being a person who sells art—so hard. It’s such a mental game, where as long as you’re mentally good, I think you’ll be fine. It’s one of those things where every other day, something is gonna try to break you.

At least me specifically—I can’t speak for everybody else—I’ve seen all of it happen, and I see a lot more happening. I think it’s still very early. And that’s the thing, you might be able to see it before other people can see it.

What’s interesting to me is, when Chance blew up with Acid Rap, a lot of people became aware of artists like you as well. The community seems to have risen together, and the Chicago scene continues to have so much amazing, prominent stuff going on.

Saba: In Chicago, we see it a little different being here. Nationally, I don’t know, I think it kinda looks like Chance and his friends. But when you’re here you’re really able to see…Mick Jenkins, four years ago, putting in work every other day, all those drops and everything like that. You’re able to see Noname performing. So I think if you’re from here, you have just a completely different idea and a completely different appreciation for all of the work that all of Chicago is doing and not just where everybody is like “Chance and Friends!” but really a Chicago thing…that’s one of those things where, obviously, people outside of Chicago had never heard of us until we were on Acid Rap.

When I was at YouMedia, I didn’t know Chance. He hit me up because I was a local artist that was buzzing, he didn’t hit me up because we were friends. He hit me up as a fan, not as a friend. So I think just being in that position, I know [what] it looks like, but people in Chicago have a true understanding of what it is. They have a different appreciation for all of the artists, not just Noname and Chance and Mick. There’s a long list of artists who just…you know, when you’re part of the grind and you can see it, I think you just appreciate it more. It’s like that with a bunch of different areas, New York especially, Atlanta especially, California especially.

Being able to see people collab is important, and that’s more so what I think Chicago is focused on right now. It’s not really like one of us blows up and then they bring the rest of us, it’s more just like a collab with your friends situation. Make good music. I think that’s one thing that people in Chicago really focus on, just trying to make the best music that they can make. I think the world is doing a lot better now looking at it, so I think it’ll get even better. I think personally some of the best stuff by Chicago acts hasn’t really even dropped yet. So I think it’ll be interesting to see where Chicago ends up few years from now, when all of these new artists are still coming out of Chicago. And I think that a lot of people are expecting it to end soon, but there’s a lot more dope shit to really come out.

Another thing I wanted to ask about Bucket List Project: I know the whole bucket list concept was inspired by your uncle. What gave you the specific idea to have people drop in and include their own lists at the end of each song?

Saba: Originally, I was gonna just have it be fans—I mean, half of [the list speakers] are people I don’t even know. I really just wanted to have a piece of the album have the fans [as] a part of the album, because I think they’re just as much of a part of the album as I am in creating it. So I wanted to give them an opportunity, and I wanted to have people from all different walks of life.

If I would have just gotten my friends to do it, a lot of them would be the same. Not to say that all my friends are the same, but we’re from similar backgrounds. You know, they’re just people I see every day. So I wanted to hit up as many fans as I could. I wanted to hit up people like Chance and Stunt Taylor and Lupe Fiasco, people that I know through the music world. I just wanted to get as many different views and ideas of what is on a bucket list. That’s kinda how it ended up, I thought of it just as a way to put the fans in the music.

I thought it was incredible, hearing all those anecdotes at the ends of the songs. It was a cool album experience that tied it all together in a beautiful way. What I loved too was that all the bucket lists were so varied, and so human. Someone wants food from In-N-Out, Lupe wants a Nobel, a guy wants to hook up with Kylie Jenner; I feel like it just captured the breadth of the human experience, all of our different desires.

Saba: I mean, going into the album and thinking of the bucket list and trying to bring in the fans, that’s really like the thing that I wanted it to be, that connecting part, that human part. That’s what I wanted to capture.

On your own bucket list, you said you wanted to meet Lil B sometime.

Saba: [Laughs] Yeah, soon enough. Soon enough.

He’s a very positive figure. Do you think you’ll get to meet the BasedGod too?

Saba: Soon enough. It’ll only make sense.

What’s some stuff going on with you in the immediate future?

Saba: We’re gonna be doing a Chicago show soon, and trying to get these videos out. Really, now it’s just trying to perform around as much as possible. Eventually start working on some new music and stuff too.

Do you have any immediate collabs in the works? Or is it still a bit of a ways away? I mean, you’ve already been so prolific this year.

Saba: I have a song with Kirk Knight that exists, it’s in the world, and eventually it’ll come out. That’s one that I really like. There’s a few more…you gotta be careful talking about your collabs and stuff because what if they don’t come out? But that one I know will be out soon.

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