It’s rare when an evening comes together perfectly like it did on October 11th. As I got to The Portage Theater on the northwest side of Chicago, two things immediately popped into my head: I’ve never been to this venue, and this show was going to be awesome. Why? Because I got to see Saba and Mick Jenkins perform live for the first time (in my life, not in general.)
Due to earlier bill-paying-job commitments, I got there midway through Milwaukee native Webster X’s set. I have heard his name before, but I’ve admittedly never really listened to a lot of his music. That is about to change in the near future because the kid put on one hell of a show. He was energetic from start to finish, and had a knack for keeping the crowd engaged throughout his extended performance.
Part of the reason why his set was so live was the strength of his band. They were completely in sync the whole way, and it was obvious that they’ve been jamming together for a long time. Even though there wasn’t a dull moment throughout his set, things really got ramped up when Webster called for his Milwaukee homies to come out on stage and kick things up to another level. After they left, Webster X did a couple more songs, thanked the crowd and called it a night. Overall, he made a very good impression on myself and the audience, and I am looking forward to checking out his music.
Given the new location, the first intermission gave me some time to explore the venue fully. Portage Theater was an interesting place to host a concert. The back area was filled with stadium seats and the front part by the stage was your standard concert floor area. The design of the building both helped and hindered the event because it had high-arched vaulted ceilings. While it was aesthetically pleasing, there were instances where sounds would echo and made it a bit difficult for the audience to hear. While this is a minor gripe about the evening, the performances themselves were top notch, and made it easy to ignore the technical issues.
The intermission was pretty short, but it allowed me to make a few unique observations. For starters, I witnessed something throughout the show that tends to be a bit rare at concerts; people drinking lots of water. It was kind of cool to see because we were, in fact, at a Mick Jenkins concert dedicated to his album The Water[s], and this wasn’t exactly the Molly-popping EDM crowd we were dealing with. Going along with that, for the most part the theater lighting was set to a cool blue, setting a consistent reminder about what you were about to see a little bit later on. The down time was noticeably short, and before I knew it, Saba appeared from behind the curtain and it was go time. He stormed out bursting with energy to the opening track of his recently released project ComfortZone entitled TimeZone. At that moment, you knew you were in for one hell of a show.
If you’ve listened to ComfortZone before, then you are aware that the project plays like an ode to everything Chicago. Saba presents realistic life scenarios (lifted from his own experiences) throughout the mixtape/album that are easily relatable, yet being personally born and raised in the city he’s speaking on puts an extra personal touch on things. That’s why when he performed Burnout and Marbles, through his showmanship, I got a feeling that he was speaking directly to me. I’m sure every person in the crowd felt the same way because we all bounced with jubilation to each song. After those two, he spit his verse from Chance The Rapper’s infamous Acid Rap album by performing Everybody’s Something, and a remarkable amount of people knew it from top to bottom. It was a testament to the impact Acid Rap has had, as well as the strength of Saba’s bars.
The party didn’t stop there because we were then treated to Scum, followed by Westside Bound (which was effortlessly blended into the much smoother Westside Bound Pt. 2.) Sadly, Benjamin Earl Turner was not present to do his part, but Saba put on for the both of them. It is also worth noting that throughout the entire set, we were baited into yelling the classic “PIVOT!” chant. It was reciprocated and intensified with every attempt. By the end of his set, he barely had to ask for it; people were repping his set willingly. There was even a moment where I overheard someone ask “what’s he saying?” Seconds later, a complete stranger turned around, looked that guy dead in the face and simply replied “Pivot. It’s Pivot Gang over everything.”
The ending of the set was a nice cool down from the intensity we were receiving throughout, as he went through Whip (Areyoudown?), For Y’all, and Butter. With Butter being one of my personal favorite songs on his project, it was awesome to see him do it almost last as the rest of the show closely mirrored the mixtapes’ actual tracklist. After those were done, he brought out a bunch of his Pivot Gang companions to wild the f*** out as one last thank you to those in the audience (sadly, I do not know the name of the song they performed.) We had just witnessed Saba of Pivot Gang in all of his glory, owning the stage exactly like I thought he would. But the night wasn’t done yet.
During a brief intermission, Stevie Wonder (with a hip hop twist) blared through the speakers, and people proceeded to get prepared for the man of the evening. All of a sudden, his DJ was on stage playing a mix of Mystikal’s Shake Ya Ass and Common’s The Light; a mix that worked remarkably well, might I add. At that point, people started to push closer and closer to the stage because it was only a matter of time before the next show was about to begin. Before I could look up, a cheerful Mick Jenkins slowly walked on stage, and it was officially go time.
Mick wasted no time at all before starting his portion of the night off with THC. It was an excellent opening song choice because the smooth vibes of the track immediately put you in a good move, and it was a great way to continue riding off of the high from Saba’s previous set. From there, we were treated to a banger from his Trees & Truths album (unfortunately, the name escapes me at the moment.) From there he went right back into the phenomenal The Waters, then back to Trees with Lack. The flip flopping between albums worked very well because it showed fans of The Water[s] that Mick has more music out there to check out, and that point was made extremely clear right from the jump. Even though it came out more recently, his album The Water[s] is the spiritual precursor to Trees & Truths, but they flow so effortlessly together that you would never be able to tell the difference. Although I admittedly haven’t given Trees & Truths the same amount of listens that I’ve given The Water[s], being there and seeing him work really made me want to go back and re-listen to his first project because I’m sure I missed plenty of lyrical jewels.
Anyway, back to the show. As if Lack wasn’t hype enough, Mr. Jenkins brought out another Chicago mainstay by the name of Joey Purps, who in turn brought out his SAVEMONEY crew with him to get wild on stage while wearing somewhat creepy masks of ex US Presidents to Ire Trill Vibes. If you haven’t heard it before, it’s literally impossible to not turn up while it is playing. With the highs, come the lows, and Mick delivered that in spades with his follow up of the somber Jazz. It’s one of those songs that can really go over your head if you’re not paying attention to the lyrics. It’s so easy to zone out to his music because his beat selection blends in so perfectly with his voice that it becomes an instrument in itself. If you do take the time out to specifically listen to what he’s saying, then you will find that he paints vivid pictures of his life experiences, and the pitfalls that can emerge from his surroundings.
After Jazz concluded, we got Dehydration and Rain. Dehydration was special because he brought fellow Chicagoan The Mind out to perform his sultry chorus. I would have loved for the two to do Shipwrecked, but sadly and strangely that song was not included in his set. However, the Rain was a welcome addition to the evening. The song was released about a month after The Water[s] dropped, and it’s definitely a banger. Every time I hear that Missy Elliott sample, a grin creeps across my face so I was thrilled to be able to see it done live in concert. Afterwards, a proclamation of Mick’s rap dominance was in order with Who Else? followed by an unreleased track that he performed just for us. No title was given for the song, but trust me when I say that when it finally gets released, it’s going to be a problem.
The night ended a few of the classics that Mick is now always known for. I don’t think anybody in the building hadn’t heard Martyrs before walking through those doors because when he pointed the mic towards the crowd, 90% of them knew every line, word for word. For a song that’s so lyrically dense, that was an awesome moment to be a part of. He followed that with the appropriate N.W.A. Fuck Tha Police sing along, and topped that off with Hurt Everybody’s Treat Me (Caucasian). When that came on, the mood shifted from having a good time to having a cause to stand up for (in a good way.) For so many people (of all races, mind you,) to connect with a song about oppression and racial prejudices that still plague our “modern” society to this day is a clear sign that Mick Jenkins truly has the uncanny ability to pen poignant social commentaries, while still making them digestible enough (without dumbing anything down) for the general public to consume and understand his truths and perspectives.
To completely end his set, Jenkins delivered both his verse and Joey Bada$$’s for Jerome. For some reason, it would appear that there are arguments about whose verse was better on the track. Let me tell you, as someone who was present as Mick did the vocals all the way through, he is the one who takes the crown on that one. After that came to a close, he thanked the crowd for being a wonderful audience, reminded us to drink more water, and exited stage left. Just like that, the night was over.
As a whole, the night was everything I wanted and more. Each artist I was blessed enough to see do what they do best did not disappoint one bit. Based on Saba’s observations from the higher vantage point of the stage, “only 30%” of the crowd had heard ComfortZone before the show, but I’m willing to bet that many more did after the night was over. His energy was infectious from start to finish, and he pulled off a rare feat while he was at it: when he said put your hands up, everybody on the floor did. This may seem inconsequential, but if you’ve ever been to a lot of rap shows, you know that when that command is issued, it is often ignored because most people are either “too cool” or “too thug” to oblige. Not at a Saba show. All hands were on deck and it made for a dope atmosphere.
That energy transitioned flawlessly to Mick’s set as well. Although he was high energy as well, his overall music style varied so it allowed for the more attentive fans to absorb the lyrics the way they were meant to be: in your face and raw. In the end, the show ended up being an exhibition of the yin and yang of up and coming Chicago musicians. I say musicians because Mick and Saba are more than mere “rappers,” they are motivators, uplifters, and most of all, creators of an extremely high caliber. We can only hope that they do more shows together, and hope even more that they do more collaborations. The world definitely needs that to happen.
If you haven’t already heard ComfortZone, The Water[s] or Trees & Truths, you can (and definitely should) do so by clicking their titles. Also, for 15-second clips of the night, head over to our Instagram page as well: @HipHopYourWay