Review: Chicago rapper Saba at Detroit’s El Club

The atmosphere was light and almost celebratory on Tuesday. And what else could it be?

click to enlarge Rapper Saba performing in Detroit on Tuesday. - Eli Day
Eli Day
Rapper Saba performing in Detroit on Tuesday.

When Chicago rapper Saba takes the stage on Tuesday night, Detroit’s El Club is a traffic jam of bodies, with little room to maneuver in any direction before bumping into a limb whose origin you can’t be sure of.

But the atmosphere is light and almost celebratory. And what else could it be? Both Saba’s “Back Home tour” and the album it spotlights, Few Good Things, have been curated to feel like swinging the door open on a room full of friends who’ve been awaiting your return from wherever it is you sprinted away to when sprinting away was the best you thought you could do.

Saba still surprises himself at the outpouring of love he receives. Minutes into his set he steps back and bursts out in shock: “It’s tight! We family in this motherfucker tonight!” 

The DJ unravels somewhere in the first act into a one-man dancehall. He throws his head back while Jamaican singer Amindi has the audience eating out of the palm of her hand. Extending his own palms outward and then upward, he laughs before stepping from behind the turntables to surrender to something clearly greater. 

Around this same time, the shoulders on a man to my left unlock themselves, bouncing and rolling uncontrollably and never making it back home until the tunes run out and the lights send us scattering. All along, the person he came with shakes her head and smiles in the tender way you also might when it isn’t the first — and likely won’t be the last — time you gotta make the best of your homies’ absurdities. 

Later, when Saba performs the standalone single “Ziplock,” a dude in front of me places his hand around a companion’s shoulder and leans in as if he’s got a precious family secret that must be guarded closely. When the chorus hits, the words spill out with the passion that often follows when they finally play your shit and you need someone to know it. The homie who the shoulder belongs to knows the play well and so he nods along until our champion has gotten the weight off his chest, or at least until he must unburden himself again.

Forced kinship is tricky. But the whole scene is the best of what can happen when friends and partners and strangers suspend disbelief long enough to make a temporary sanctuary together. You can tell how deeply Saba cherishes this, and how badly he needed it. 

In a statement posted to his Twitter before the album dropped, Saba urged listeners not to take the easy way out. Few Good Things, like the title hints, was more than any single experience, in the same way that no life can ever be reduced to its most unforgettable or fluorescent moment. 

He had good reason to worry. In his last project, 2018’s Care for Me, Saba’s grief over the murder of his cousin and Pivot Gang collaborator John Walt draped itself across every corner of a brilliant and haunting 42 minutes. 

But this ain’t that, he explained. Few Good Things wouldn’t be a new vehicle for transporting the same old heartache. This time, you’d get the “full spectrum of black humanity,” he wrote. So long as listeners come with genuine curiosity, and willing to see past the “grief and loss and suffering” that cloaked Care for Me. 

And he’s right. Few Good Things, his third full length independent project, is more things than I can count. 

He opens up with “Free Samples,” a whimsical track that feels like looking toward the sun through a forest of trees. At its core, like the album as a whole, “Free Samples” is a homesick tribute to the places he’s loved and the people who made those places spectacular. “I still get nostalgic seeing houses that my family lost… When granny fought for her property, she would turn down any cost.” 

Then come joints like “Come My Way” and “Make Believe” that reinforce the album’s key revelation as I see it: That, on the one hand, the things you resent most about a place — the poverty, hunger, and close calls that you barely made it out of and the ones that so many others didn’t — are creatures of an entire machinery of plunder perpetrated at the highest levels of power. And, on the other hand, the things you love most about a place are the good times you and your loved ones somehow crafted from the ashes of whatever wreckage was left behind. 

I think about this line from “Come My Way” a lot: “Posted on the porch shootin' the shit/ Had to run them niggas shootin’ shit/ I wish that the guys had shields,” because of how the best of it is followed by the worst of it before being scrambled into an alternate timeline. He says “shields” and just like that every friend we’ve ever lost is made of steel and swats bullets away like flies while the same jokes and stories we’ve told a thousand times but never get sick of hearing echo off the porch and down the block again and again.

Then, on “Make Believe,” he stacks fortune up against his grandmother’s daily miracles and sees that the math is indisputable: “I don’t give a fuck ’bout a label/ Yeah, they put a mill’ on the table/ but my granny really put meals on the table!” 

At this point, each song is carrying him a little closer to home. Before getting into the swift and propulsive “An Interlude Called ‘Circus,’” he describes a bus stop on Chicago’s west side, and asks the audience to imagine being there with him, carrying all of our ghosts with us back to wherever we’re loved most.

“I wanna dedicate this song to John Walt,” he says. “I wanna dedicate this song to SqueakPIVOT,” another friend and collaborator who was killed in 2021. “I wanna dedicate this song to anybody somebody in here lost… Detroit, is it OK if we go back home?”

At this point, it is hard to imagine anyone refusing. Especially if we interpret “home” loosely. The one you return to need not be the one you began with. We just hope you get there safely. 

The hook on “Circus” nails this part about exits perfectly: “Ay, we Never Say Goodbye, no see you round, no see you later/ Ay, this Chicago, when you leave, we say be safe here.” It’s all there: the loved one. The departure. The plea to stay alive a while longer. And all worth running back to. “Not to sound like I don’t appreciate when they pay me, but all the days in the basement, we tryin’ to recreate it.” 

Nostalgia is tricky, that way. Things become more precious the further we travel away from them. But Few Good Things feels different. It feels like unmasking the machine that’s been turned against the people you love and the landscape their dreams sit on and still believing in what you can build together from the wreckage.

By the time he gets to the title track, it crystallizes: 

“The grind never stopped for the workin' class, fuck a Birkin bag… Dangle a million dollars when oxygen was the mission/ We just wanna breathe, we been drownin down here for centuries/ We turned a bunch of nothing to abundance.”

And it was right here all along.

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About The Author

Eli Day

Eli Day is a Detroit native. He writes about politics, history, and racial and economic justice. His work has been featured in The American Prospect, New Republic, In These Times, Current Affairs, Mother Jones, and Vox, among others.
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