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Common and Saba Fight for Chicago’s Future

On ‘Black America Again’ and ‘Bucket List Project,’ the two artists offer competing visions of their city

Saba begins his latest mixtape, Bucket List Project, with 13 tracks of youthful bravado. It’s not typical macho braggadocio, though. The idea of a “bucket list” frames the tape; the 22-year old Chicago emcee uses it to both celebrate and negotiate his own mortality, suggesting that in order to live freely, he must also live fearlessly, however difficult that may be. Bucket List Project reflects on the imagination and dread that come easy to kids growing up on the city’s Westside. In the chorus of the opening cut, “In Loving Memory,” Saba lays it plain, asking, “When I’m dead, and I’m gone / Would you smile, coz you know / Where I’ve been and gone?” In a year when Chicago’s epidemic gun violence has been crudely caricatured by national political folly, the counternarrative has come in the form of songs from native sons and daughters — memorable mixtapes and pure poetic portrayals from Saba and his immediate cohort: Chance The Rapper, Jamila Woods, Noname, Mick Jenkins, and Vic Mensa. The most powerful rebuke is a portrait of Chicago from those who know it best.

On the tape’s penultimate track, “California,” Saba heads from his Westside neighborhood, Austin, to the West itself, in full throes of manifest destiny: “I stopped dreamin’ / instead I decided to chase.” In the wake of burying a friend, he considers the ways that transitioning from one city to the next, from one period of life to another, will inevitably shape him. The self-assurance he’s gained over the years is directly tied to the relationships he’s developed there. To remove himself from the city’s view is both freeing and terrifying. This tension gives Saba’s breathless rhymes a steadying edge of sobriety. He knows it’s hard to remain rooted in hometown sensibilities once you’re 1,000 miles away.

And that’s a story as old as rap itself. Chicago’s ultra-mainstreamed O.G., Common, has spent his last few albums attempting to bridge generations and geography, reconciling the stardom that gave him distance from a day-to-day Southside. His latest, Black America Again, suggests that political liberation comes through spiritual (re)awakening. Common has fancied himself a sage since 1994’s Resurrection, drawing heavily from black political and spiritual leaders like Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali, but his song-sermons have always worked best when they arrive layered with introspection and inner turmoil. On Black America Again, he seems to believe the solutions don’t involve the system itself getting better, but rather black people doing better for themselves by getting closer to God. The potentially powerful messages become reduced to proverbial finger-wagging.

Saba’s spiritual-political interrogations are enriched by the way Bucket List Project remixes the “YOLO” adage. It’s grounded in a visceral understanding of a finite self, and mortality hangs over every bit of pleasure or pain like a specter. Saba’s conversational bars illuminate the unwelcome forces and hard choices of life in Chicago’s Austin neighborhood. On “Photosynthesis,” a sorta-duet with Jean Deaux and a watery jazz guitar, he raps, “I just met a killer that’s bent in his ways / Try to raise a family with minimum wage, what can I say? / Beside the demons, it’s reality for the people that we love.”

Chicago is often misrepresented as a violent dystopia, its people too real and its narrative too complex for a soundbite. The Chicago of Bucket List Project is not defined by its shooters, by its children whom we know best as hashtags or as emblems of its ills. Saba cuts through all that. The light melodic synth and three-part harmony on “GPS” shroud a poignant critique of American greed. He laments the idea that “food can make you forget that we’re all this famished,” which, in turn, leads to a kind of self-deception — “Niggas spoon-fed, talkin’ bout they poor / Niggas be broke talkin’ like they on.” The deceit can come across as dreaming for a more luxurious existence, but it’s grounded in a rhetoric of social mobility that denounces the realities of others. On “Stoney,” he plays out a broke-kid fantasia, dreaming up his future from the passenger seat of his cousin’s Cutlass, but the aggression of the chorus undercuts it. Saba realizes that no matter how fly his ride is or isn’t, it’s a classed symbol that doesn’t mean much in the pursuit of realized freedom.

Common, meanwhile, goes broad: prisons as the new plantations, the harmful aftereffects of institutional racism in education, and the need to strengthen black communities from the inside out. Over Karriem Riggins’s sporadic synths on “Pyramids,” he brands himself MC John the Baptist, rapping to a purpose he describes as being bestowed upon him by God. On the breakbeat Negro hymn “Home,” he recounts a brush with the divine where he’s told to use “lyrics, use scriptures, use passages / to make them rise like Lazarus” with the reward of “Oscars, Emmys and Grammys.” For Common, the will to EGOT is a divine ordination.

Common’s emphasis on black elitism — he mentions Nina Simone, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, and Viola Davis all on the title track — undermines his desire for black liberation with a modern iteration of “The Talented Tenth.” Supposing that regular black folk in America can earn their way into an upper echelon not only ignores what’s stood in our way but also echoes the messages heard from an oppressive white power structure. It’s a frustrating oversight that lends credence to the criticism that Common is anachronistic at best, consistently corny at worst.

Common spells out his brand of activism on “Letter to the Free,” where his roles as Clinton supporter and village priest collide. “We staring in the face of hate again / The same hate they say will make America great again,” he says. He notes that this hatred isn't new, but neither are his solutions: “For America to rise, it’s a matter of black lives / And we gonna free them, so we can free us / America’s moment to come to Jesus.” Aside from placing the onus of liberation on the backs of the oppressed, Common’s hope lies in all Americans living up to Christ’s loving standard. Save for a passionate ode to his late father, “Little Chicago Boy,” he trades intimacy for poignancy. His calls to action don’t lack for hope, but they stick to a Judeo-Christian redemptive narrative — one with a predetermined, unsatisfying ending.

Just last year, he garnered heat for telling Jon Stewart that black people must “extend [a] hand in love” to white people in order for racial violence to end. There was much side-eye for a questionable freestyle on Sway in the Morning where he appeared to criticize the Black Lives Matter movement for its supposed silence on black-on-black crime — “I know that Black Lives Matter, but do they matter to us?” The verse shows up again as the first on “Black America Again,” with a notable edit: “I know that Black Lives Matter, and they matter to us.” The revision highlights how, in the midst of his decade-long path of mainstream ascendence, Common’s sensibilities have aged. Unfortunately, the album’s production underscores a certain antiquity. Black America Again, beyond the gritty tone accentuated by Riggins’s Dilla-inspired, unquantized drum rhythms and jazz modalities, plays out Common’s desire to bridge the gaps that separate him from much of his audience. But his rhymes ring out like static dispatches, outmoded solutions from a bygone era.

Chicago’s long history as a city of black American promise burgeons beneath both Bucket List Project and Black America Again. Saba raps for the youth to free themselves, to live out their lives according to their own will, to find routes outside of symbolic forms of wealth and freedom. These lines don’t directly contradict Common’s vision for a brighter black America, but they speak to the necessity of diverse and imaginative routes — all the ways we must push toward the horizon.