The meaning of “Pivot” has since shifted to emphasize the value of moving forward in different directions. Coming up, Saba did that while attending open mic sessions downtown at Harold Washington Library’s YouMedia program. The space offered constructive criticism and collaboration to a roster of budding young poets, a large chunk of whom now sit at the forefront of local hip-hop, including Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa.
“That was training camp for all of us,” Saba says. “That's when I started to understand life a little more. I was 17, realizing I can talk to people, that they aren’t out to kill me. Just being around that environment changed how I viewed myself. And in turn, I got over the stage fright. It became fun instead of being a fear.”
At the same time, Saba began music and business classes at Columbia College Chicago. He dropped his first project, Get Comfortable, later that year. “It's funny,” he says, “I got a B in a hip-hop class, and in all my other classes I had A’s.” But despite accruing a 3.9 GPA his freshman year, the school reduced his scholarship money without explanation. “It never made sense to me.” No longer able to afford tuition, he left to pursue music full-time, working a brief stint as a janitor in a West Side apartment building two summers ago (“brutal,” he remembers) to help fund a business trip to Los Angeles.
It’s still early, but feels safe to say that sequence of events has worked out. After returning home from his February tour, Saba will appear at South by Southwest in Austin for the third year in a row. Though still earning modestly, he’s riding the wave of ComfortZone and constantly recording. “I'm not gonna rush into my next project or anything, because I don't wanna be that type of rapper where people are expecting a project every month,” he says. “I'm not even gonna mention that I'm working on a new mixtape.” (He is.)
Saba has some tentative plans for his first tour. He just bought a new portable mic for the road, and hopes to heavily curate the music on the tour bus, which worries him. “I asked Mick Jenkins what he thought of Young Thug, and he was like, [mimicking Jenkins’ baritone] ‘I don’t think of Young Thug,’” Saba says with a wide grin.
“I feel like [the first tour] is one of those moments that can be the difference between a lot of the artists who make it and those who who don’t,” he says. “When I was 16 I was like, ’Yeah man, I’m gonna go on tour.’ And it's like, ‘no, you're not, you don't know anybody.’ Then there was a point when I was like, ‘I'm just gonna be a good rapper and I'm not gonna ever do shows.’ But to do this every day now, I'm excited. I'm ready.”
ComfortZone opens with a question from Saba. “Who do you wanna be like? Who do you picture me like?” As it turns out, the answers are multiple, the hats myriad. Careful introvert, magnetic performer, prodigious student, college dropout, occasional mink-wearer.