We spent some time with Saba, who lets the blood of the late John Walt run through his latest effort, Care for Me, which was an emotional experience to witness.
As Okayplayer, in with a crowd of dozens, took in the project through clunky, glowing headphones, scattered amongst a chic Chicago hair-salon-turned-event-venue, “Anita” rapper Smino similarly weaves in and out of the crowd formally gathered to hear Saba’s project days before its wide release. Before the listening portion of the listening session began, we asked Smino, who somewhat frequently appears with and collaborates with Saba, what he knew of the album before today.
“Nothing,” Smino indicates. He laughs, and points to a sprawling canvas of Saba’s album art, a bleak photo of the Chi-town native perched on a slightly unkempt dining table in a slightly unkempt kitchen. Here, Saba is either pensive, perturbed, or paranoid. His hair juts every which-way, his arms are folded. “He looked like that throughout the recording of the album,” Smino jokes.
— Go Go Gadget Hoe (@BlkRseKapri) April 2, 2018
Later, as we near the album’s end, his partner, artist Jean Deaux, held John Walt’s mother as she wept, wearing a t-shirt of her eternally-24-year-old son’s visage. Several attendees succumbed to sob one-by-one like dominos—and Smino is not really laughing anymore. When the lights rise and the headphones come off, we ask him what he thinks of Saba’s work.
Smino grips a small, jewel-encrusted NASA rocket hanging from a short, thin gold rope on his neck, then lifts it towards us. “He’s gone,” he says, struggling for words. “This is gonna make niggas wanna rap better.”
If Saba is taking off, he is taking John Walt with him. Born Walter Long Jr., John Walt (or dinnerwithjohn, as he sometimes billed himself) was an artist Chicago music journalist Tara Mahadevan called “a staple of [the city’s] rap scene.” He was also and Saba’s cousin—or “brother,” as Saba put it.
Walt was fatally stabbed last February, less than a month before Saba began touring the U.S. with his acclaimed debut, Bucket List Project. While Bucket List Project is peppered with the hopes and fears of a circle of creatives, Care for Me is decidedly the stories of Saba and Walt. With few features—one an assist from Chance the Rapper—the 10-track album chronicles Saba living with Walt’s ghost, who Walt could have been if he didn’t die, and who Walt was before he did.
— SABA (@sabaPIVOT) March 25, 2017
With an overwhelmingly impressive lyrical dexterity and syllabic manipulation reminiscent of ‘90s greats like Freestyle Fellowship, Saba sails through tales from those of his bed’s depressive magnetism as his best friend’s obituary hangs beside, to finding and dodging love and labels in ways Walt never will. The album’s head-boppable beats made the room sway to gut-punching lines on black death like: “Jesus got killed for our sins / Walter got killed for a coat,” and “I’m probably deserving / ‘cause I know they serve and protect / but they think I’m serving / or they think my cell phone’s a weapon.”
IM NOT THE SAME PERSON pic.twitter.com/klXY75ITC6
— SABA (@sabaPIVOT) March 3, 2018
It’s hard to say, but perhaps the album’s most heart wrenching procession comes at its conclusion. The second-to-last track, “Prom/King,” begins unassumingly, seemingly a dreamy recollection of high school heartbreaks and prom proposals, of Walt’s watchdog character and Saba’s awkwardness and appreciation. At the listening session, Saba’s family—slouching teens and child-holding elders—giggle knowingly and shake their heads as he raps about being handed a condom by his grandfather before meeting a date orchestrated by Walt.
“Prom/King” escalates into drum-laden chaos as Saba describes all the blessings that had descended upon he and his crew, Pivot Gang, before Walt’s mother calls him to report Walt missing. It then diminuendos into a voice singing “Just another day in the ghetto / Oh, the streets bring sorrow / Just another day in the ghetto / I just hope I make it to tomorrow.”
That voice is Walt’s, we learned days after the session.
“I told [Walt’s mom] later in the night that Walt has a split in the song, and royalties are gonna be going to the Foundation,” Saba’s co-manager Cristela Rodriguez texted us. “So intense.”
She means the John Walt Foundation, the Chicago based youth arts organization honoring the perished performer that Saba and his crew boost fervently.
— Andrew Barber (@fakeshoredrive) August 14, 2017
While the loss of Long was difficult for their entire community of family, friends, and artists—not mutually exclusive—Jean Deaux saw the death weigh heavily on Saba in particular. The album, it seems, gave her a better sense of what her cousin-friend Saba was holding within. When she first heard Care for Me, prior to the listening session, it was like “hearing one of your friend’s deepest, most emotional therapy sessions,” she told us.
We imagined putting pen to paper, paper to memory, and memory to mic in Walt’s name would have been difficult for Saba and tell him as much in the instance we catch him before the lights dim, the album plays, and the tears fall. He corrects us.
“This was the easiest music I’ve ever made.”
Care for Me is available now on Apple Music and Spotify, plus you can stream the project below and check here for when Saba will be in a town near you.
Mankaprr Conteh is a freelance writer, communications specialist, and creative director based in Brooklyn. Follow her on her adventures on Twitter @Mankaprr.