On the brand-new Ballin Like I’m Kobe east-side MC G Herbo, formerly known as Lil Herb, repeats the acronym “NLMB.” As he told radio personality and rap reporter Sway Calloway earlier this year NLMB stands for “Never Leave My Brothers,” the 19-year-old rapper’s collective of close friends. NLMB has acted like a shield for the violence that’s responsible for the Terror Town, the stigmal nickname given to a patch of South Shore, Herb’s neighborhood. Herb told Sway that NLMB isn’t a gang, but a stabilizing presence among the chaotic violence: “I consider us a family at the end of the day.”

Herb’s stuck by his family even as his star has risen since he dropped his fantastic debut mixtape, last year’s Welcome to Fazoland. Last summer Herb made his way to Summer Jam, Hot 97’s unparalleled annual hip-hop fest, where he joined Nicki Minaj during her headlining set to perform their collaboration, “Chiraq”; that track went on to become the inspiration for endless remixes, each one bolstering the power of the original. In July of that year Herb popped up on Nobody’s Smiling, the tenth album from local hip-hop icon Common, and the young rapper owned every second he appeared on album opener “The Neighborhood.” Earlier this month, as he prepared to release Ballin Like I’m Kobe, Herb announced he’d signed to heavy-hitting hip-hop indie Cinematic Music Group, home to Big K.R.I.T., Joey Badass, and south-side MC Mick Jenkins.

Ballin Like I’m Kobe
arrives as Herb commands a bigger presence, and on the mixtape he continues to cast a light on the blight in his neighborhood—he frequently refers to the fear, anger, and confusion that hit kids when they have one too many close calls with stray bullets. Whereas Welcome to Fazoland could be unrelentingly bleak, Herb manages to instill warmth into Ballin Like I’m Kobe while maintaining the same feelings of dread that made his debut compelling. It helps that Herb’s added more color to his music by working gentler melodies into his instrumentals. The slow-melting soul of opener “L’s” and airy, gliding “Remember”—which features vocals from singer and Mick Jenkins collaborator the Mind—help crack through Herb’s gruff vocals and tough delivery to show the beating heart guiding his rhymes.

On Ballin Like I’m Kobe Herb invests even more of his energy into the people he cares about. On the irresistible, anthemic “No Limit” Herb not only shows his appreciation for his incarcerated best friend, G Maneski, but the rapper yields some of the song’s real estate to his friend—Maneski’s voice is half-audible coming through a phone call from prison, but the love these two have for each other is palpable.

Like Herb’s debut Ballin Like I’m Kobe is named after a fallen friend: Jacobi D. Herring, known to his friends as Kobe. The mixtape’s cover shows Herb crouched over Herring’s headstone against a black backdrop, and Herb mentions his friend throughout the mixtape. Herring was among the 422 Chicagoans killed in 2013. Prior to his death Herring had been one of more than 400 locals the Chicago Police Department included on a “heat list” of individuals most prone to violence; the Tribune revealed as much after Herring was shot and killed early the morning of August 10. Herring had left a late-night party just a couple blocks away from his house when he was gunned down. Herb was at the party, hanging out on the street with friends, when he heard the shots that killed his friend.

To the outside community Herring was a number: he was one of hundreds on a police “heat list”; one of many killed in a year when homicides were at a low but still exceeded 400 individuals murdered. Herring’s death elicited just two paragraphs in the Sun-Times‘s comprehensive Homicide Watch, and his name was spelled incorrectly—it still reads “Jacoby Herron” instead of “Jacobi Herring.” But for Herb and his friends Herring was so much more. With Ballin Like I’m Kobe the rapper provides his friend with a name and stature society could not, and helps us understand Herb’s grief.

Leor Galil writes about hip-hop every Wednesday.