Just a few days in, this week’s shaping up to be a great one for local hip-hop. The Guys dropped a fun video for their punchy, steel drum-driven bop anthem “Flee”; up-and-coming rapper Frank Leone released a moody, introspective track about violence called “Bump in the Night”; and the GTW came out with “Calling Cards,” a tune that leans hard on the sound of So So Def, as his Jody bandmate Khallee threw down his first single, the sinuous “2Layers.” But the release that’s really been on my mind the past couple days is Welcome to Fazoland, the debut mixtape from drill rapper Lil Herb.
The teenaged MC hails from a south-side neighborhood known as Terror Town, and his rhymes give a clear idea of what it’s like growing up and surviving in a part of Chicago with such a brutal reputation. He’s a fierce, gifted rapper who captures all the intensity, hostility, and emotion of a particular moment in just a few lines, and he can do it with such speed that by the time you’ve unpacked what Herb’s said, he’s already moved onto the next few grim portraits of his environment. It’s hard to shake a foreboding paranoia when Herb raps about having to watch his back on “At the Light,” and you can feel some of his gut-wrenching guilt when he apologizes to his mother for falling into gang life on “Mamma I’m Sorry.” On “Designer” Herb addresses those who attack him on Twitter, saying he “still ain’t gon mention them / ‘Cause my shorties they itchin’ to pull on they block and just empty them 100s and clips in them”; it reminds me of Ben Austen’s excellent Wired magazine feature on social media’s role in Chicago gang wars, and packs all the weight of that story into a brief moment.
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It’ll be interesting to see what happens to Herb in the coming months. Like any drill rapper, Herb’s going to be compared to Chief Keef—the measuring stick most folks use to discuss new Chicago rappers, especially those who make the kind of dark street rap that can easily be classified as drill. But Herb’s an entirely different rapper, one whose lyrics are saturated with detail and whose songs are stuffed with complex lines—occasionally they appear a bit overstuffed as Herb raps so fast it’s like he’s trying to get every last word into a track before time runs out. But he pulls it off with style because his skills are impressive. On several listens I had to stop whatever I was doing to focus on exactly what he’s saying and how he’s feeding off the beat.
The first time that happened to me was during “Koolin,” on which Herb delivers the chilling line, “I’m koolin’ in this hellhole.” As Complex’s David Drake wrote in his excellent profile on Herb, it’s not just a throwaway line—it’s a reference to “Hellhole,” the first single from D 2 Tha S, a 90s Chicago rap duo whose Trevor “Kay-Tone” Caston happened to be Herb’s uncle (Caston passed away in 2010). As Drake pointed out, Herb’s musical lineage goes back further than that—all the way back to Mississippi, where his blues-playing great-great-grandfather was born. Drake’s story shows how Herb and his family tree are a microcosm of Chicago history, and that narrative just gets deeper every time I think about it. The same goes for the world Herb describes on Welcome to Fazoland.
Leor Galil writes about hip-hop every Wednesday.