As I wrote in my year-in-review piece on overlooked Chicago hip-hop, no agreed-upon variables exist to help determine which releases are definitively “overlooked.” I’m less willing to characterize artists that way if I notice that, say, publications outside the city are giving them attention—but some musicians are so good that even when they start to get popular, it’s hard not to feel that they deserve still more fans. Maybe “underappreciated,” not “overlooked,” is the better word here. In any case, that brings me to G Herbo, the east-sider formerly known as Lil Herb.
Though Herbo was one of the ten rising rappers selected for the 2016 XXL “Freshman Class” and his videos rack up millions of views, I think he ought to be a bigger crossover success. He’s falling short so far probably in part because he dropped his latest mixtape, Strictly 4 My Fans, the day after Thanksgiving—an unforgiving release date, especially for artists trying to get widespread press or make it onto year-end lists. And it’s worth noting that Strictly 4 My Fans would’ve gotten a boost if it had included his 2014 remix of “Fight or Flight,” which features Common and Chance the Rapper.
With Chance reigning supreme, every rapper in town is measured against his high bar, even as they’re helped by the attention he’s brought to the city’s scene. Nobody is likely to replicate Chance’s explosive rise, but Herbo ought to be part of the pantheon of contemporary Chicago rappers whose names are on everyone’s lips. He’s among a handful of artists with the potential to build a stable career near the top of the rap totem pole.
I expect it’ll help Herbo if he does more exploring beyond the musical territory he’s mapped on his recent mixtapes—that is, acidic drill handled with the soft touch of soul and R&B. On New Year’s Eve, New York City producer Harry Fraud dropped “Don’t Forget It,” a track from his new Rogues Vol. 2 compilation that features Herbo. Fraud’s glistening synths and pillowy vocal samples (they sound like something between a yawn and a moan) stand in stark contrast to the hard-edged instrumentals on Herbo’s own mixtapes, and this new setting—glum but hopeful—draws out the emotion in the rapper’s vivid stories of gun violence and its heavy toll. He’s addressed the subject of “Don’t Forget It” in different ways on every one of his releases, but the treatment Fraud gives Herbo’s narrative helps it land like a left hook after three straight rounds of right jabs.