Holding a crowd’s attention when you’re in a band, have some instruments, or massive screens and choreography behind you in an arena is hard enough (i.e Drake’s ridiculous ‘whole stage as an HD screen’ set up), but holding a crowd’s attention with nothing but yourself and a DJ in the background building beats is something else. Doing this on your first full UK tour in small venues when you’re a 24 year old rapper from Chicago is something else again. Yet that’s what Taj Malik Chandler aka Saba is doing in the tiny Academy 3 (itself an upgrade from the original venue, the even smaller Yes which sold out quickly) tonight, and then some. It’s a thrilling display of talent where very little else but a brilliant flow, brilliant songs, and a 1000 watt smile (as well as some slightly old skool crowd interaction techniques) is needed to keep an audience on the edge of their toes, hands aloft, rapping back at the young man before them.

Saba is here in support of his exceptional 2018 album CARE FOR ME, one of the best rap albums of last year alongside Joey Purps’ QUARTERTHING and Vince Staples’ FM! (these lads love capitals), it’s definitely the most intelligently written rap album of recent times, sensitive and inward looking, with intricate instrumentation and great beats, it’s a treat. This being his first time in Manchester he’s getting a rousing reception from the sold out crowd even before he’s stepped on stage. This is due to his DJ/hype man ‘Dan’ who’s banging out old school Kanye and new school Kendrick tracks, whipping up the masses with shouts of “who’s ready for Saba” in between siren sounds and explosion effects, for a good 20 mins before the man himself bounds on stage, puffer jacket and hoodie, hood pulled up over his cap as he launches into the pretty CARE FOR ME opener ‘BUSY/SIRENS’, the intro to an album that is actually an incredibly moving tribute to his older cousin John Walt who was fatally stabbed in Chicago. He raps the verses, the story of his depression following his cousin’s death: “Jesus got killed for our sins/ Walt got killed for a coat / I’m tryin to cope/ but it’s part of me gone and apparently I’m alone”, whilst singing the chorus sweetly via auto tune/vocoder, it’s a stunning opener.

It’s nowhere near being a morose gig, despite the heavy subject matter of the album. Saba is too hyped for this to descend into a navel gazing event, whipping the crowd up at regular intervals during breaks in songs, getting us to raise our hands during songs from his debut album Bucket List Project telling us, “I get paid to rap for an hour, I’m asking you to give me three minutes” – we certainly give him that and then some, each song rapturously received, each heart-breaking lyric spat back at him, each uplifting mantra chanted in his direction, the room is full of love for Chandler. We get pretty much everything from CARE FOR ME, stand outs including the magnificent ‘CALLIGRAPHY’ (apparently his favourite track from the album) and the ridiculous flow he spits on ‘LIFE’, the rhythm in his lyrics as good as anyone operating in rap right now.

After a brief break from the stage, he returns to do ‘PROM/KING’, his 7 and a half minute magnum opus which tells the story of Walt and ultimately his death in stunning detail (seriously, look up the lyrics, it’s an astonishing track), it’s a wonder he can get through this night after night, it must be hard to retell this all the time but it’s frankly incredible, and the crowd let him know it. He bounces off stage, high on our applause, and we trail out of the Academy black box knowing we’ve seen a future superstar perform in a tiny space at the start of what will no doubt be a stratospheric journey to the top. I’m calling it: he’s the next Kendrick, and it’s going to be glorious to follow.

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