Saba's 'FEW GOOD THINGS' is an exercise in honing perspective
Since the release of his last album, 2018's CARE FOR ME, Saba's been carrying a lot of weight. CARE FOR ME — an epic tragedy where he grapples with the immediate mental and emotional effects of the murder of his cousin, rapper John Walt — showcased Saba's ability to balance strong-willed righteousness and relatable emotionality. One of the founding members of Pivot Gang, Chicago's West Side musical collective, Walt (real name Walter Long Jr.) would often retreat to his grandmother's basement — along with Saba, MFnMelo and others — to record music, planning to take over his city with open mics and youth groups.
Now, Saba's third studio album, FEW GOOD THINGS released Feb. 4, examines the aftermath of that disrupted dream, revealing how individual losses and systemic failures linger on the psyche. Throughout the album, Saba brings Midwest mainstays (Smino, G Herbo), R&B staples (6LACK, Mereba) and hip-hop legends (Krayzie Bone, Black Thought) into his orbit to help make sense of his personal anxieties amidst an anxious world.
Out of his many worries, the power of a dollar circles Saba's mind the most. On lead single "Stop That," he shrugs off multiple opportunities for deals, spitting, "I turned a million down a million times, that's not a lot to me." Still, he's fixated on money: How else is he going to ensure his loved ones are safe and provided for? On "Fearmonger," he acknowledges that even though he doesn't want money tethered to his sense of self-worth, his position demands he shoulders the many responsibilities required to secure his community. People depend on Saba, which means going broke would put a lot of livelihoods in flux. His worries deepen when he contemplates his responsibility to fans and whether they'll leave if whatever he puts out next fails to move them.
FEW GOOD THINGS alternates between these moments of anxiety and warm remembrance. The album's best songs feature a sunny haze reminiscent of priceless moments from after-school programs and walks to the corner store. There, Saba transcends superficial reflection; rather than merely looking back on the good days, he uses his past as a means to adjust his present perspective. "2012" showcases a younger version of the rapper fixated on a girl he's infatuated with, sheepish smile and all. The Nascent- and Daoud-produced track captures youth's purity, zeroing in on life's most idyllic moments. Despite his nostalgic romanticism, Saba isn't escaping his fears. He's choosing to not allow the world's woes to define him and his livelihood.
It helps that most of the production on FEW GOOD THINGS is lush with atmosphere. "Come My Way" is refreshing in its sweeping sound, replicating the warmth of a specific Chicago wind only locals would understand. With bass and guitar coaxing over drums, "Free Samples" feels like sunlight peeking through blinds. Executive produced by members of the aforementioned and tight-knit Pivot Gang, Daoud and daedaePIVOT, it's no wonder the album feels seeped in intimacy. Supported by their mellifluous production, Saba is able to reach his maximum potential, thriving despite the world's flaws. He writes his bars with such keen detail that when he reflects on his grandma's home-cooked meals, clear images of beaming grins and plastic covering on couches immediately come to mind.
Antepenultimate track "Make Believe," featuring singer Fousheé, acts as the album's centerpiece. Traveling the globe and faced with massive career opportunities, Saba pauses in the middle of life's hectic pace and ultimately comes to understand that nothing is more important than his family. The track emphasizes FEW GOOD THINGS's thematic arc of self-realization as Saba shares: "I got everything I could ever need, and I try to keep that in mind anytime I meet a man tryna sell a dream." It's an epiphany, one where Saba learns to minimize worries he can't control.
The album's tenderness isn't always consistent. Despite avoiding musical stagnancy and introducing many welcome contrasts, several moments halt momentum on an album abundant with beautiful movements in production. The best example of this is a very rigid "Stop That." Incredibly spare and minimal without provocative components to make up for its negative space, the track sounds like the commercial music transition during NBA playoffs. While Saba's flow astounds, a technically correct but motionless "Survivor's Guilt" runs into a similar issue, hinting at Chicago drill but missing the mark on what makes the subgenre phenomenal.
On FEW GOOD THINGS, Saba cycles through deep breaths amidst uncertainty and psyches himself up with much-needed reassurance. "Soldier" perfectly encapsulates the energy split between grimmer, more anxious feelings and optimism. With an unborn daughter on the way, Saba can't help but think of how easy it would be for him to lose everything. His acute familiarity with loss forces him into an obligation to protect his family. The song closes with a heartfelt lamentation, "If all of this can go bad, then what's the point of trying?" It's devastating, but it's not an outright tragedy. "Soldier"'s production features an unsure wind; closer to an overcast than a ravenous thunderstorm, it's just what comes with life's many joys and downfalls.
Ultimately, the album's an exercise in honing perspective: What really matters at the end of the day? For Saba, in spite of its constant adversaries, a few good things in life make it feel full. His ability to remain grounded in spite of nagging pressures to do more makes him a hip-hop everyman. Where other rappers feel like untouchable multi-millionaires trampling the music industry for playlist placements and whatever bag calls them, Saba remains tangible.
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