“DID NICKI JUS CHANGE MY LIFE?” That’s something the young Chicago rapper Lil Herb asked on Twitter last year after he showed up on Nicki Minaj’s Soundcloud banger “Chi-Raq.” That song should’ve changed Herb’s life. Before “Chi-Raq,” Herb was a tremendously talented young rapper with a growing internet fanbase but no real larger profile. With “Chi-Raq,” he appeared alongside a one of rap’s reigning pop stars when she was in serious-spitter mode. “Chi-Raq,” in fact, might be the strongest pure rap track that Nicki released last year. Herb got to rap over half of it. He held down the crucial role of “guy from Chicago whose presence makes it OK for you to name your song ‘Chi-Raq.'” But he also held his own alongside Nicki, coming with a hard and choppy double-time that dripped with authority even as it showed sneering, nihilistic style: “If any nigga ever try to end me / I’ma die shooting, praying God forgive me.” A verse like that, on a song that high-profile, should’ve made Herb a star. But for whatever reason, we’re no longer in an era when a single verse can make someone a star. So that means, months after “Chi-Raq,” Herb is still a tremendously talented young rapper with a growing internet fanbase but no real larger profile. That’s too bad for Herb, but it might be good for us, since it means we might keep getting mixtapes like Pistol P Project.
Pistol P Project is not a grand, sprawling, ambitious mixtape. It’s not a case of a rapper trying to carve his name into the moon. That’s what Herb was going for on his last mixtape, last year’s scintillating Welcome To Fazoland. That tape was Herb’s grand introduction: A young man who’s seen too much bleak shit emptying a lifetime’s worth of rage and fear into 16 bleak and relentless songs. With that tape, Herb accomplished things that he doesn’t try to re-accomplish. He no longer sounds like he has demons chasing him, and he no longer has to unload pent-up bullshit all over your speakers. Pistol P Project is a quickie, 10 songs in about half an hour. It’s one of those weird mixtapes that seems to exist to build anticipation to another mixtape: Ball Like I’m Kobe, apparently coming sometime soon. But that doesn’t mean Pistol P Project sounds calm or satiated. He ends the mixtape track “Quick And Easy” thusly: “This bad bitch I’m with look Belizean tropic / They can’t keep up, I might start rapping about some easy topics.” He never quite takes himself up on the offer. Lil Herb does not have easy topics in him. Everything is apocalyptic to this kid.
Herb is an urgent, forceful, brutal rapper. He spits out his words like they taste bad, like he can’t wait to get them out of his mouth. His voice is a wizened, desiccated back-of-the-throat bark. You can practically hear his spit hitting the foam thing they put around microphones. He may be young, but his voice is not. If you’ve ever had an uncle who smoked too many cigarettes and not-so-secretly hated everyone else in your family, Herb sounds like that guy. Right now, he’s the rare rapper who never, ever sings his hooks — possibly because he doesn’t want to, but more likely because he can’t. He’s got a scorched-earth mentality in common with his Chicago drill peers, but those guys always sound like they’re having fun, and Herb never does. In the way he carries himself on his tracks, he reminds me more of a smack-your-teeth-out New York street-rap veteran like, say, Styles P than of any of his peers. And he uses that voice to paint some fucked-up pictures. The first rapped words on “Where I Reside”: “Drug raids, conspiracies, murders, homicides / Mamas crying, that’s what’s going down where I reside.” On “4 Minutes Of Hell, Pt. 4,” he says that he’s been selling crack for a thousand years. He mentions dead friends, by name, over and over. Between songs, we hear newscasters chime in to remind us that things are really, really fucked up for black kids in Chicago.
In terms of persona and worldview and sound, none of this is any different from what Herb presented on Welcome To Fazoland. Herb raps about having money a bit more, but it doesn’t feel like he’s softening. He never lets you forget what he had to escape to get that money, and he highlights the limitations that still surround him. He cannot, for instance, go overseas, because he still has open cases back home. Pistol P Project does not present a grand career step. It’s a collection of songs, nothing more. Lil Bibby, once Herb’s most frequent collaborator, is absent. Barely any guests show up, and none of them are all that famous. The ones who do come through make an impression, though. Katie Got Bandz, even in full tough-talk mode, sounds like a ray of charismatic sunshine on “Money,” and the underappreciated Kingston-born and Atlanta-based dancehall growler Zuse sounds great gleefully trading bars with Herb on “Heaven Or Hell.” Mostly, though, this is a quick dip into one young man’s terrifying, gouged-out personal universe. In the middle of winter, it’s a bracing listen. It stings like a slap, and sometimes that’s what rap needs to do.
Download Pistol P Project at DatPiff.