Revisiting Saba's ComfortZone Five Years Later
In hindsight, you can sense how wide-eyed Saba was back then. Released a couple of days shy of his 20th birthday, ComfortZone brims with a zeal for life. A couple of years away from mastering his talents, here he's still learning how to wield his lyrical prowess, yet even back then, he carried himself in a distinctively mature manner. A staunch observer of his hometown, Sab discerned every situation with empathy and thoughtfulness.
Today marks the fifth anniversary of the album's release. After spending three years working on the project —mostly out of a makeshift studio in his grandma's basement—the result was a lush and tender celebration of breaking free from limitations.
ComfortZone galvanized my own journey towards self-discovery and became the go-to soundtrack as I said goodbye to my teenage years. Now, we're both about to turn 25, and it feels like it all happened in a blink of an eye. I still intuitively start clapping when "Burnout" comes on, a familiar longing overtakes me when I listen to "Welcome Home" and "For Y'all" never fails to put a smile on my face.
At the moment it may not have felt like the watershed release it was meant to be. But its creeks led to world tours, features on #1 albums and the best project of 2018. So to commemorate the anniversary of a Chicago classic, swipe right to read a couple of quotes from Saba dating back to shortly before the release. A time capsule of sorts for a timeless project.
Saba first envisioned ComfortZone's sounds and themes when he was 16 years old —but the album wasn't released until a few days before his 20th birthday earlier this summer. In between that time, Sab sharpened his skills, released a prelude 'tape, appeared on Chance The Rapper's Acid Rap, accidentally broke the hard drive in which ComfortZone's original version was stored, re-recorded the whole thing, added new songs and scratched a few others.
The final product became an album that embodies who Saba was as a teen trying to turn his dreams into reality, situated in a place where becoming successful is an anomaly. It also speaks on how he got to this precise point in his with a keen awareness of oneself and his surroundings, a characteristic only seen in a talented few. The Chicago native brings it all together with engaging themes such as his relationship with his step-father, being a former honor-roll student, a best-friend locked up and his hometown woes.
The thought of a self-proclaimed nerd (he's referenced Star Wars in at least two different occasions) from the hood might leave blissful people somewhat stumped. After all, a rapping, scholarly savant kid from the far West Side is probably the last thing you expect to see if you let Vice documentaries tell it.
The violence between inner-city kids is a consequence of a more significant socioeconomic issue rather than the cause. As he thoroughly describes on the album cut, "401k," lack of employment, wealth disparity and the crooked justice system has thousands of people continually wondering if there's a right path in life. Yet these facts mostly gets downplayed whenever the city's violence problem is brought up.
In a sense, Saba does a better job at reporting what's going on in his city than prestigious news outlets through a first-hand perspective. Songs like "Scum" narrate the struggles that go on around his neighborhood. Hunger, poverty, and school closings being the main factors behind people fighting over gangs and jewelry. Nonetheless, his artistic endeavor can come with a hefty cost. "Some people are not a fan of the stories in the 'tape. Some guy threatened to kill me after the 'tape dropped." he recalled, "that shit is hella crazy, but I can't compromise the truth at the risk of my own death."
In the album, Saba shows a genuine, multi-layered personality that comes closer to showing how millennial kids are than news reports would like to admit, a quality he polished on his debut 'tape. "GetGomfortable, that was me getting comfortable writing shit like that. Before, all my raps were just about how good I was at rapping." Saba disclosed in our conversation, "Now, I can share stories and share my life. ComfortZone are stories about me, and people around me. People know me —even though they've never met me—through music. That's one of the most beautiful things about that project, and I want that to be a theme throughout my music for the rest of my life. A feeling of knowingness."
This year —even before ComfortZone was released on July 15th—Saba performed at dozen of shows all over Chicago, giving glimpses of what the 'tape would sound like, organically winning over new fans and steadily improving his stage presence. He has rapidly become one of the best performers in the city by design as Saba explained to me: "I feel that's where the music comes to life. People thought I was weak until they saw me live. As an artist, that's one of the most important things. That's when you actually get to connect with the people who actually like your music. People can listen to your music all the time, and you can never know, but at the show that's where you can see it."
Arguably Saba's most important show to date was at the end of July, a week after the album dropped. Serving as his first official headliner, Schuba's held an intimate event with more outside hoping to get in. With the venue at maximum capacity, it was apparent that those in attendance were there because they connected with the stories Saba has shared so far in his career by the dense and exciting ambiance surrounding it.
Saba poured his heart out once he hit the stage, per usual, and cemented his place as one of Chicago's brightest rising acts. Seeing him perform exclusively ComfortZone tracks while attendees vibed to them took me back to the conversation we held a few days earlier when Saba reflected on the relatability of his music once again: "All of my raps, I try to relate. I try just to rap my life but make it as relatable as possible. Because I feel my life is broad as hell, a lot of people can relate. It's very human."
Inside the venue, whether it was Saba looking directly at his mom while rapping the second verse on "Marbles" or the loud West Side chants from the crowd, the music's impact was tangible beyond simple tweets or blog posts. These were real-life raps being rapped in real life with passion and eagerness to share an experience.
In an age where we tend to automatize things by turning them into hashtags, memes, and vines; the show felt more human than ever. In that regard, Saba is pushing the envelope as well as advocating others to take on new challenges and finding actual happiness. He's the antithesis of a viral star, ComfortZone cannot be reduced to a single catchy line or a six-second dance video loop. Instead, it strives for progress and longevity with complex arc themes and beautiful soundscapes drenched in melodies provided by the likes of Cam O'bi, Nascent and NAiMA.
Sure, none of his songs have hit the million plays mark, and Schubas wasn't a huge venue, but as long as there is consistent growth, those things will come in time. For Saba, the only thing he's currently focused on is consistently breaking out of his own comfort zone. "I feel the only pressure I put on ComfortZone was on myself. I never felt pressure from people. The only expectation I really give myself is to be better than the last shit I did. That's the only goal I can have for myself: to do better. That's the goal until death damn near."