In the music of Chief Keef, his GBE crew, and their assorted Chicago peers, there’s a certain pathos, but it’s an implicit pathos. These are children, after all, making dead-souled and violent and hedonistic party music. That music is one way for kids from one of America’s most violent and hopeless corners to blow off steam, and it also reflects, in its own ways, the hopelessness of the environment that produced it. At its best, it’s cold and hard and genuinely cathartic. When Lil Bibby, another young Chicago rapper, came out with his Free Crack mixtape a couple of months ago, it marked a sort of shift: The implicit sadness and desperation in drill music starting to become explicit, to manifest themselves in plain language. Now, with the even better Welcome To Fazoland mixtape, Bibby’s friend and frequent rhyming partner Lil Herb makes that shift complete. This is a mixtape of blunt and intense and generally fearsome music, as done by a kid with a bottomless bark, an impressive technical fluidity, and the sort of unrelenting fist-through-your-face rap delivery that used to turn kids into legends. But he’s also got a lot of pain, and he wears that pain outwardly.
A telling moment from Herb on “Ain’t For None”: “All I care about: Money, hoes, cars, clothes / Sike! That shit don’t mean shit to me, and that’s on Roc’s soul / I’m in this shit with my niggas, don’t give a fuck about shit but my niggas / OG, Grandma, and my sister and everybody that I love to that trigger.” Herb talks a lot about his friends and his family on Welcome To Fazoland, and when you’re dealing with a kids whose friends keep dying, that sort of talk takes on a scorching urgency. There’s not a lot of fun to be had on Welcome To Fazoland. When Herb talks about money, it seems to be a way to insulate himself and his family from the violence around him, nothing more. When he threatens violence, which he does often, it’s with a back-against-the-wall ferocity. When he talks hometown pride, there’s not much pride in it: “Can’t forget about that hellhole, I spent my life in it.” When he talks about struggling, he’s not staking out some voice-of-the-people messianic territory; he’s simply describing his situation and his context: “I’m from where mothers don’t care and babies get killed / Rob and go steal for stomachs to fill.”
This is grim, tough, spartan, unsmiling music, but it’s not joyless; there’s a goonish catharsis in Herb’s forcefulness. He’s a hell of a rapper, a born lion. And even when his lyrics read as thoughtful on the page, he delivers them with a gruff, instinctive immediacy; if he’s a craftsman, which I think he is, then a big part of his craft is in sounding like a kid with no filter, in conveying the impression that he’s belting out whatever shit is on his mind in that moment. His words and his voice are too precise and composed for this to be off-the-cuff, but in the moment, it feels like pure venting. Herb’s double-time delivery, which he doesn’t use too often, is sharp and controlled. But even in his usual rapping voice, he probably crams in twice as many words per bar as, say, Keef. If you’re one of these rap fans who look at the young wave of Chicago rappers like a sign of the apocalypse, then Herb could be your guy, since he’s got all the driven, bruising composure of his East Coast forebears.
But Herb is very much a Chicago rapper, and he makes sense in the context of the rap music coming out of his city right now. I’m not talking about the Chance The Rapper-led brainy-nerd wave, either; Herb is light years removed from that stuff. The guests on Fazoland all come from Chicago’s fight-rap underground: Bibby, Lil Durk, King Louie, Lil Reese, all of them sounding perfectly at home next to Herb. The production is gigantic and punishing — drums sounds that hit like a car door slamming on your head, monolithic gothic synth riffs, brutal simplicity. The opera samples of “4 Minutes Of Hell (Part 3)” leave me breathless. Compared to Bibby’s Free Crack, which was so haphazardly recorded, Fazoland is polished and well-mastered enough that shitty sound quality and attention-demanding DJ-hypeman yelling aren’t factors here. (Host Don Cannon yells a lot, but his yelling is generally pretty effective.) These beats, then, don’t have anything compromising their thunder. They hit hard, and so does Herb’s voice. And yet Herb is still capable of a track like “Mamma I’m Sorry,” in which he offers heartfelt and heart-rending apologies for dumb shit he did when he was running in the streets, or “Write Your Name,” a sober soul-sampling recollection of dead friends. Fazoland is a sharp, heavy, hard-hitting mixtape from a young rapper who knows what the fuck he’s doing, and it’s worth hearing for that reason alone. But what really makes Herb, and by extension this tape, special is this: He raps like he has everything at stake. Because he does.
Download Welcome To Fazoland here.