Photos: Marcus Smith

The first thing Saba says on Care for Me, his critically acclaimed second album, is “I’m so alone.” He finished recording it at the beginning of 2018, and the 24-year-old rapper (real name: Tahj Malik Chandler) was back home after a long tour. “I was unsure of what was next,” he recalls, “and there were a lot of things that mentally I felt very limited by. I wanted to be busy.”

Saba was also still struggling to go on without Walter Long Jr., his cousin and musical partner (whose stage name was John Walt) in the Chicago rap collective Pivot Gang. Long had been stabbed to death in February 2017, following a fight on the Green Line. (Saba is headlining a Pivot Gang show this month to benefit the John Walt Foundation, which he founded with Long’s mother to provide mentors for young artists.) Memories of Long’s life and death are all over the April-released Care for Me, Saba’s artistic breakthrough and perhaps the best Chicago hip-hop album of the year.

“I was trying to make some fun shit, make some bangers,” he says. “I didn’t set out to make songs about Walt’s death. But somehow it still turned into being about that. It was hard to escape. A lot of the songs turned into grieving.”

Throughout Care for Me, Saba contemplates his own depression, solitude, and mortality while reflecting on his childhood growing up in the Austin neighborhood. On “Smile,” he raps: “Sweet West Side Chicago, two-flat apartment, red-brick and garden that’s been forgotten / Grass all splotchy, vacant lot splotchy, bank account splotchy.” The music, heavy on acoustic piano and richly textured beats, is as melancholy and passionate as the vivid lyrics.

Saba profile
“I was trying to make some bangers. I didn’t set out to make songs about Walt’s death.”

Saba’s been rapping since he was 8, first using a karaoke machine in his grandparents’ basement. “It used to be just me and my cousin Von,” he remembers. “We would be crankin’ out records nonstop. They’re terrible.”

Much of Saba’s growth as a rapper and beat maker came through after-school workshops he frequented while attending St. Joseph High School, a private Catholic school in west suburban Westchester. He gravitated to programs like the spoken-word-focused Young Chicago Authors and YouMedia, the Chicago Public Library’s arts and STEM initiative for high school kids.

“That was crazy. YouMedia had this open mic program called the Lyricists Loft, and that’s where I met everybody that I know,” he says, citing collaborators like Chance the Rapper, Mick Jenkins, and Noname.

Saba is as serious and thoughtful in person as he is on record. “I definitely wanted people’s first experiences with Care for Me to be alone so that they could really process the feeling of creating the album,” he tells me at one point. But he’s also quick to smile and laugh. The photo on the cover of Care for Me is black and white and moody, but whenever I’ve been around him, he’s got on bright colors. On the day we meet for this interview, he’s wearing a yellow T-shirt, an aqua denim jacket, and a black-and-white trucker hat that says “Care” in red.

As 2018 wraps up, Saba finds himself in a place very different from where he was when the year started. Recently, he got an apartment with his longtime girlfriend, a photographer, in Humboldt Park. (“I figured it was time to move out of my grandma’s house.”) And after this month’s show, he leaves for his first Australian tour, which is already selling out some dates. It’s a cathartic conclusion to a painful period. And this phase is a lot less lonely.

Details:Saba Nov. 24. Logan Square. Concord Music Hall. 6:30 p.m. $20–$23.