Staff Pick: Saba rediscovers joy in a ‘Few Good Things’

The Chicago rapper visits the Newport for a concert on Wednesday, May 4

Andy Downing
Columbus Alive

Much of Saba’s previous record, Care for Me, from 2018, centered on the death of his cousin, Walter Long Jr., with the Chicago rapper painting the pair’s relationship in such vivid detail that the sting of the loss can be felt long after the music stops.

On Few Good Things, released earlier this year, Saba makes a conscious effort to move past the murder, a pivot felt most fully on “Survivor’s Guilt,” where he raps, “My cousin is still supposed to be here,” the final word of his statement interrupted by a quick static burst, as if even the music is urging him forward. 

Rather than burrowing deeper into grief, Few Good Things emerges, ultimately, as a more hopeful listen, Saba joining with a smattering of collaborators to explore how to best carry on in the face of such loss. "If all of this can go bad, then what's the point of trying?" Saba wonders on “Soldier,” a track that helps establish the album’s searching tone.

As a result of this inward dive, the album swings between moments of high anxiety, with the rapper stressing about finances and the number of people within his orbit reliant on him for income (“Fearmonger”), and comparatively sepia-toned remembrances that showcase Saba’s sharply honed skills as a storyteller. Witness “2012,” which takes listeners back a decade to the point in time when the rapper and his friends first found comfort and camaraderie making music together. “I can take you where it's rough, I mean the catacomb/All these bodies droppin' same blocks that we played tag,” he raps. “For some old shit, they wanted they payback/So we escape it all in the booth with the playback/'Cause this the only place that we knew you were safe at.”

As a rapper and lyricist, Saba is both fully formed and effortlessly malleable, gamely tackling drill beats (“Survivor’s Guilt”) and breezier fare such as the sun-kissed title track, which finds Roots rapper Black Thought blowing through like a Coastal Carolina breeze. Throughout, Saba writes with a novelist’s eye for detail while still holding to his playful side, which can take unexpected form, such as the way he twists a mention of “geometry” in “Survivor’s Guilt” into a series of bars in which he subtly drops the names of various shapes (circles, squares, triangles and spirals included).

Over the course of this remarkable album, Saba continually reconnects with small moments of joy — these few good things — that have a way of reminding him what’s truly important in those times when outside forces threaten to overwhelm. “I got everything I could ever need, and I try to keep that in mind anytime I meet a man tryna sell a dream,” Saba raps on “Make Believe,” a line reflective of the musician's hard-won inner peace. So, what’s the point of trying? Perhaps, Saba seems to suggest here, it’s to linger as long as possible in those moments of sunshine we’re able to snatch between the storms.