I enjoy Saba, tend to avoid Smino, and understand the appeal of Noname even if her music doesn’t resonate with me. It’s not a popular opinion, but then again, most of my opinions are not popular opinions. That’s why the fan fervor around Ghetto Sage, the much-teased supergroup of Saba, Smino, and Noname, never permeated my wants or desires.
The three Midwest musicians are musically distinct, but stylistically run in a hemisphere that, at one point meant the world to me and with the jaded glaze of age, has stopped feeling as vital. Their lyrics are dense, the subject matter presents a specific vision of Midwestern blackness, and their vocal performances range from deadpanned to warped in a Soulquarian varnish. In short, they tend to be light on bangers and heavy on vibes. Going into Ghetto Sage’s “Häagen Dazs,” it was difficult to know if the trio would bolster each other’s worst tendencies or present another side of the singular artists that could flourish within the collaboration. At the end of three minutes, it appears the group is closer to the latter.
Produced by PRODXVZN, the song is built on a sparse, eery beat that leaves enough room for each artist to present what they’ve become known for. Smino anchors the song with that weird voice he does, but his chorus is effective and catchy. It’s not easy to sell a hook like:
I get the bands like The Roots
Blackout all my thoughts, request the love, revenge the youth
Benz a coupe, that bitch fast, Häagen Dazs
Ice cream on the inside, Häagen Dazs, SRT
But somehow Smino does, and as the song progresses, he extends and shortens the hook in service of setting up and propelling his bandmates. Saba’s verse is predictably excellent and hits its peak halfway through when the Chicago rapper launches into a double-time flow, managing to force-rhyme the last word of each bar – Funkadelic, Erick, Elvis, fellas, Ben & Jerry, Tom & Jerry, bend and vary, and hail mary — and build a sense of rapid tension in a small space.
Then Noname steals the show with a devastating performance. On Twitter she explains that her verse centers on the topic of black intimacy. “In this verse I write about sadness as it relates to my partners body being synonymous with death,” she wrote. “Our society is constantly saying we’re not enough and sometimes I’ve used to show/feel like we are. To feel totally human and totally free.” It’s a deep and heady concept to present in a song that’s ostensibly about ice cream paint jobs, but to Noname’s credit it works and bar like “I’m sucking dick cause black lives matter/I scatter roses on my metaphor, ’cause the world shot Nipsey,” is easily among the best of the year.
“Häagen Dazs” is a strong first outing for Ghetto Sage. The song didn’t change my mind regarding each artist’s solo work, but it never needed to.