G Herbo Credit: Eric Johnson

On Halloween, Auburn-Gresham one-stop shop and hip-hop hot spot Exclusive773 handed out bootleg rap CDs by Chicago rapper G. Herbo to trick-or-treaters. That evening owner Steve Wazwaz tweeted a video of fans gleefully clamoring for them. Their enthusiasm went through the roof after one of Wazwaz’s employees casually activated his phone’s video-chat program and turned the screen toward the kids so they could talk to his friend: G Herbo himself. I can’t blame the kids for freaking out. Over the past five years Herbo has shown an unparalleled ability to speak to the experiences of this city’s black youth, infusing his songs with the intimate details of his time growing up in the south-side neighborhood known as Terror Town. For all the bloodstains splattered across cracked-cement corners and the lack of opportunity that weighs heavily on the people in his songs, Herbo always finds a way to inject a little bit of light into his narratives and instrumentals, no matter how dire or vitriolic. What’s more is he gives them a triumphant heft that would make any kids who see themselves in him proud. His first studio album, September’s Humble Beast (Machine Entertainment Group), debuted at number 21 on the Billboard 200 (by comparison, Vic Mensa’s major-label full-length, The Autobiography, peaked at 27). It sounds brighter than his previous material, which is partially a reflection of Herbo’s success; his artistic reputation has grown enough that he landed a featured verse on “Crown,” from local street-rap legend Bump J, shortly after Bump was released from prison this spring after serving an eight-year sentence for armed robbery. But for all the changes in his life (and if the glistening soul track “Street” is any suggestion, he’s doing quite well), Herbo still knows how to tap into the pain, anger, and anxiety of coming into adulthood while black and penniless in Chicago. “Malcolm” contains about as great and succinct a lesson in systemic injustice as you’re likely to hear this year—the rapper trenchantly maps out a young, violence-streaked life with the kind of detail that could fill a thousand-page tome.   v