When Saba speaks for the first time on the opening track of ComfortZone, he comes prepared with one of the strangest cadences to crawl its way onto a track in years. He begins rapping with the spitfire flow one might expect from a Chicago MC, but immediately murders any sense of clarity as his lyrics dive into what feels like a series of mumbles sped up on a tapedeck.
If you’re not careful and don’t listen closely, he can sound like a Southern rapper attempting to freestyle at the dentist after receiving a healthy dose of anesthesia, and the wah-d out synths rising in the background make that visual a lot more vivid. The moment is far from musical perfection, and there’s a strong sense that this is an amateur production, but a powerful charm exists here. It’s rough around the edges, but those times where all of the scattered pieces fall together for just a moment make for something surprisingly compelling.
ComfortZone is just that – surprisingly compelling. On first listen, the jagged edges are blatantly evident if not subtly noticeable; the unprofessional producer tags attached to “401K” and “Westside Bound Pt. 2,” the complacent piano melody and mediocre singing throughout “Tell You,” the obvious soundkit voice sample in “Scum,” the synth lines that feel like they were crammed through pro-tools fuzz-wah effects a couple thousand times over, and the multitude of face palm one liners (“I whip it on a Wednesday, watch how I treat it like it’s Friday”) all stick out as obvious flaws holding the project back from being anything more than mediocre. Repeated spins give way to a different perspective as the rough edges fade into the background and a comfort zone (bad pun intended) of great tracks emerges in the center.
For every wobbly synth or overdone piano melody lies a gravitating beat that tows the line between ‘banger’ and ‘sentimental’ deftly; “TimeZone,” “Burnout,” “Butter,” and “United Center” come forward with catchy rhythms and dreamy backdrops perfect for Saba’s flow-heavy verses. For every bout of poorly executed singing or line about Chutes and Ladders (Seriously, that reference is made) there is a verse filled with speedy syllables and heavy introspection; “401K” brilliantly presents a gritty take on throwing away an average life of study for a troubling life of slaughter. The pros of the mixtape begin to outweigh the cons, and then some.
There are quite a few jewels to be found here. “Butter” is something special, the perfect combination of a nocturnal instrumental and wispy hook that can sink into the back of the listener’s brain for days at a time. Likewise, “United Center” is the best kind of closer. It perfectly encapsulates the style of the tape in a grand finale in which both the producer and rapper are at their best. When ComfortZone reaches a high point, it soars.
The rough can overtake the diamonds in a few disappointing areas, however. Saba’s verses are often packed with flows that change speed on an expert level, but his delivery can have a tendency to be too understated. The aforementioned high that is “Butter” has a few sour moments in which his near-monotone inflection is drowned out by the beat; he’s rapping fast, but he’s not rapping strong.
“Almost, but not quite” is the name of the game on ComfortZone. Saba has already sank his teeth into hip-hop with a unique personality and a definitive style of taste, but he has a little bit of polishing to do before this gem starts shining like it deserves to. A stronger presence on the microphone, a more conservative approach to beat selection, a desire to write more lyrics like those on “401K” and a willingness to allow capable guests to handle the singing could all serve to make Saba a force to be reckoned with. ComfortZone is a solid effort, and this MC could be a few steps away from being the next success story to come out of the Chicago hip-hop scene.
3.5 out of 5
You can stream ComfortZone below and download it here.