SahBabii's five stages of grief
After his childhood friend was murdered, the rapper had never planned to write an entire album about his death. But it just had to come out.
On a recent night in New York City’s Meatpacking District, several SahBabii fans, myself included, gathered in the underground basement of SNS Bar. The atmosphere was lively, and with everyone vaccinated, for a moment it felt like the pandemic never occurred. Then SahBabii stepped on stage and announced his forthcoming album with a dedication to his late friend, the rapper Demon Child. A hush came over the crowd.
SahBabii (born Saheem Malik Valdery) is often described as an underrated force in the crowded Atlanta rap scene. He’s managed to stay under the radar by avoiding features with other artists and ultimately keeping to himself. But his use of nostalgic subject matter, X-rated puns, and animal references have resulted in a strong fan base, ready to support anything he feels like covering. After SahBabii’s 2016 breakout song, “Pull Up With Ah Stick,” grew in popularity among hip hop fans and other rap artists (it’s been remixed by Young Thug, T-Pain, Wiz Khalifa, and Drake), it peaked at No. 8 on Billboard’s Next Big Sound chart in 2017. Since then, Sah has released a new mixtape every year, leading to his seventh project, Do It For Demon.
On December 4, 2020, SahBabii learned that his family friend and fellow rapper, Demon, had died after being shot five times in the chest. The two had first become acquainted after meeting on a basketball court in the Sylvan Hills neighborhood of Atlanta after Sah’s family moved from Chicago. Demon was also new to the neighborhood, and the two instantly clicked.
“He and his brother just started coming over to my house all the time, even when we moved. Times were a little bit tough for them, so my folks let him and his brother move in, in exchange for food stamps,” Sah tells me over the phone. Quickly building a tight bond, the two shared everything — from the same phone to rides to school — and even worked together on music. “We were family. He called my mama auntie and I called his mama auntie. We had that brotherly love for each other,” said Sah, who gave Demon his nickname.
Do It For Demon is the first studio album from the Atlanta-based rapper, and it’s arguably his most vulnerable and compelling expression yet. While the sexual animal references and unpredictable ad-libs that OG fans love are still warranted space, it’s SahBabii’s ability to express feelings of grief and anger through poetic lyrics that sets this project apart from previous work. Throughout the album, there are life lessons about not trusting people and looking out for yourself, as well as lyrics about going through the motions, from feeling stressed and depressed to being cold-hearted. Honoring his childhood friend was not always the plan for SahBabii’s next release. “I tried not to talk about him in songs, but I couldn't help it. It's like his spirit just got inside me and that shit was just talking to me,” he told me.
Describing the 20-track album as one with more substance and less fun than his earlier work, Sah says the project is as satisfying as it is painful. Do It For Demon proves to be a rousing showcase of the artist's vulnerability, starting with the opening track, “Divine Order,” where Sah expresses how he wakes up angry every morning and reminisces about time spent with Demon.
“It’s my favorite song off the project because I know in the process of recording it, I was feeling a lot of emotions. I had to step away from the mic a few times to shed a couple of tears,” he says, noting that working on the project was therapeutic for him overall. At first listen, Sah’s naturally-soothing voice over lush trap beats doesn’t make the project sound vengeful or violent. But sitting with the album reveals the deep anger and discontent he still feels about the murder.
In “Bread Head,” Sah talks about employing a hitman to murder his opp, most likely the man who murdered Demon. In “Switch” he makes it known that he is armed. In “Scared of Myself” Sah reckons with his unpredictable behavior brought on by frustration and grief. “It’s a bit of a sad project, but I think it’ll show people that I have a real side to myself, because they see the squid shit, and the cartoon covers, and they can sometimes get it confused,” he says.
It’s noon in Atlanta when we hop on the phone, and Sah has probably been up for six hours. He starts most of his mornings at 6 am to get a head start on his day. But you wouldn’t know that by following his Instagram page, where he frequently archives photos and only posts ahead of a release. Unlike many musicians, the 24-year-old rapper lives a very private and reserved life, which he says is comforting. Sah is almost completely offline, withholding photos of his 4-year-old son and following no one on Instagram, “I’m really not here to try to impress nobody. I really don't try to overdo things. I like making my music and my art and doing it for the people that love it.”
When he began recording, as most rappers do when they first start, he didn’t expect to make a career of it. “It wasn’t something I thought I was going to be doing for a long time. It was only just to be popular because everybody was making music in school. But my brother saw that I was good, and people liked it, so he encouraged me to keep going,” he said.
Sah’s older brother T3, a musician himself, isn’t just a fan of his brother’s clever wordplay and sedated harmonies, but also produces most of his songs and contributes backup vocals to some of his tracks. Working together comes easy to the siblings, who according to Sah “are like Shaq and Kobe.” The odds were always in Sah’s favor that he would become a musician: he rapped in a neighborhood music group as a teen, his father runs the family-owned Atlanta-based label Casting Bait Music Group, and part of the family’s relocation to Atlanta from Chicago was to pursue his brother’s music career. Even his stage name, SahBabii, was given to him as a child by his aunt.
An ability to stand out in Atlanta is a talent itself. Everything Sah says is delivered with complete seriousness, from riding for the ones he loves and being descriptive about the sex he’s having, to comparing his love interests to animals. And that’s what fans love about his music most — its unpredictable weirdness delivered in a southern drawl. The common rap themes of designer fashion, luxury cars, and heavy drug use remain absent from his library. Sah’s performances are moody, with gothic overtones and stretched syllables — but at the same time, he can also be silly. He delivers provocative catchphrases and whimsical metaphors about sleeping with giraffes and elephants, catching feelings for a fictional anime girl, and having two dicks, one for pleasuring women and one for holding more ammunition in his firearm. Fans have described his sound as “Young Thug-influenced,” but sheepish pronunciation makes his tracks, no matter the subject matter, fitting for bedtime.
Despite a preference to work alone, recent collaborations suggest more expansion for Sah in the near future. Soon he can be heard sharing a verse on Lil Keed’s upcoming track “Afghanistan,” and last year he joined forces with Joji on “Gates to the Sun,” a dreamy and transient track recorded remotely during quarantine. Two years before, he participated in a riskier collaboration with R. Kelly on his less known track “7 Squids.”
When I asked him if he regrets the collaboration, Sah offered a genuine response. “When I was younger, being from Chicago, everyone around me used to listen to R. Kelly’s music. But I really didn't know about the allegations back then, and I don't think the documentaries and all that had come out. But at the same time, I do not condone that at all.” Surviving R. Kelly, the Netflix documentary responsible for bringing widespread attention to the rape allegations against the singer did not debut until January 2019, half a year after SahBabii released their collaborative track.
With a newfound lyrical seriousness, it’s safe to assume SahBabii’s music will continue to evolve with age, but remain weird and unpredictable enough to always set him apart. He shows no signs of retiring anytime soon, even though he tweeted about doing it in 2019 (which didn’t happen). While consistency is a rarity for fans expecting their favorite musician to put out new work every year, SahBabii has yet to fall short. Detailing more about his life story is likely to become a theme in the rapper's later music, who says Demon suggested he give it more focus. In this project, the accepted advice can be heard. As he tells me before we hop off our call: “I just want to share my art, that’s it.”