It’s been a banner year for Chicago hiphop. Releases by Joey Purp, Noname, OG Common, and Chicago’s most critically-acclaimed son Chance the Rapper have all received a fair amount of attention and positive press, but for my money, the most impressive offering to come out of the Windy City this year is the latest release from rapper and producer Saba, Bucket List Project.
The album opener, In Loving Memory sets the stage with an ambient fade in and bright choral harmonies that quickly give way to a propulsive and spellbinding marathon verse over cool jazz chords that recall the best of Robert Glasper, concluding with a satisfying hook; despite a range of production credits, the rest of the album doesn’t stray too far from the sonic territory staked out on this track, with jazz and gospel-tinged chord progressions that recall at times the vintage sounds of A Tribe Called Quest, or the Pharcyde, populated by exceptional choruses, crystalline vocal harmonies, and trap-inflected beats. Saba is an extraordinary rapper, whose meticulous and chameleonic style and varied flow is probably most prone to comparison with Kendrick Lamar (which isn’t exactly the worst person a rapper could be compared to). But Saba, like Kendrick, is clearly a student of the art form, who deploys his influences artfully, and any comparison would be a superficial one. Saba doesn’t come across as an average rapper aping the King; in practically every verse, his musical and varied delivery, lyrical content, and naturally shifting flows sound effortless and are nothing short of masterful.
Sprinkled throughout the record are what seem to be voice-mail messages from Chicago rappers like Chance, and Lupe Fiasco, as well as people who, presumably, live or lived in the rapper’s neighborhood on Chicago’s West Side, and most touchingly, his father, as they detail the items on their bucket lists. The record is in many ways a love letter of sorts to the Chicago neighborhood where the rapper grew up, and this is reflected in much of the lyrical content, which while highly personal and autobiographical, is rarely sappy or self-indulgent, as well as the roster of featured artists, who all hail from Chi-town. Twista, Noname, Joseph Chilliams, and Smino are just a few of the rappers who contributed stand-out verses on this project. In this album’s 13 tracks, Saba reflects on issues of death and loss, and depicts his Chicago, with tones of nostalgia, resentment, resilience, and hope tinged with sadness, in painstaking clarity.
In short: Expert and engaging song structures and warm, creative production, with bravura lyricism and hooks that are actually worthy of their instrumentals, as well as guest features that actually elevate the tracks, as opposed to bogging them down, and an album arc, flow and concept that make you want to listen to it all the way through, are the reasons that after my third full listen, Bucket List Project might be my favorite rap album of the year.