G Herbo Is A Scarred, Wounded Veteran At 25
Adele had an album called 25 a few years ago. You might remember it. For Adele, that album title had a pretty clear meaning. She was 25 when she recorded it, and it’s a sort of quarter-life crisis album, a theatrical look at heartbreak and resilience. The Chicago rapper G Herbo called his new album 25 for some of the same reasons. Like Adele, Herbo was 25 when he made his album. Like Adele, Herbo has been through some things. But for Herbo, that number is a different kind of milestone. That number means he’s survived.
In a recent Complex feature, Herbo tells of one friend who was murdered this past February, a week before his own 25th birthday. Stories like this are nothing new for Herbo. Herbo was 16 when he and rap partner Lil Bibby released “Kill Shit,” the 2012 track that started to build buzz for both of them. Both of them sounded grown and grizzled, and both of them were already eulogizing dead friends. In those early days of Chicago’s drill explosion, Herbo and Bibby felt like old-school throwbacks — husky-voiced guttural head-splitters whose level of technical command was years beyond anything their peers could manage. They had seen some things, and you could hear it in their voices.
Since that time, Herbo has persisted. He’s only made one proper hit, but he became a hallowed veteran figure in Chicago rap around the same time he hit drinking age. (That one hit is “PTSD,” the title track from Herbo’s 2020 album. Herbo is easily the least famous person on that song, which features Chance The Rapper, Lil Uzi Vert, and the late Juice WRLD. The fact that all those guys wanted to be a Herbo track is a measure of how much weight his presence carries.) Herbo has said that he stayed in the streets long after his career started to bloom, and his Wikipedia page is full of both criminal charges and charitable works. Herbo has been charged with gun possession and domestic violence, and he’s currently facing a federal fraud case. (Feds are claiming that Herbo and his associates bought things like “designer puppies” on stolen credit cards.) But Herbo has also bought a Chicago elementary school, with the goal of turning it into a youth center, and he’s established an initiative to try to get young and disadvantaged Chicago kids into therapy.
On 25, as on PTSD, Herbo presents himself as a survivor who’s lived through unspeakable things: “Lost too many n***as, when they died, I ain’t even cry/ I ain’t even feel it, I can’t even lie.” His stories are all about seeing friends die and then striking out in vengeance. Herbo does a lot of tough-talking on 25, but he also attempts to imagine a reality where he and his peers don’t have to live under the constant threat of violent death. On a song like “Demands,” Herbo places blame on institutional racism and looks hard at all the traps that young Black men face in places like Chicago: “Can’t stay in school ’cause our future is inevident/ Dropped out, no college, street knowledge what I majored in/ Can’t be a boy where I’m from, it’s quick to make a man/ Bloodshed for generations, never make amends.”
Like fellow drill veteran Lil Durk, Herbo has been thriving lately. Everyone knows that he can rap, and he’s shown up on recent tracks from younger stars like Polo G, Pooh Shiesty, and Young Nudy. Herbo never sings, and he barely even attempts hooks, so he’s become an avatar for a certain emotive and hardbitten rap realism. Elder-statesman status has been good to him. Last year’s PTSD made the top 10, and it was Herbo’s biggest album yet. I expect that 25 will be even bigger than that. But Herbo almost never sounds like enjoys these new levels of career advancement. On the icy stomper “Really Like That,” the exhilaration in Herbo’s voice when he talks about his expensive watch hits so hard because it’s rare. Herbo’s too mired in the traumas of his past to feel the triumphs of his present.
That presence is a potent thing. 25 is not a great album. It’s too long, too unfocused, too loosely structured. All the guest appearances feel mechanical, obligatory. It’s fun to hear Herbo barking out threats alongside 21 Savage or attempting Brooklyn-style drill with Rowdy Rebel, but songs like those would probably work better as standalone YouTube joints. Right now, Herbo is one of those rappers who usually sounds better when jumping on other rappers’ songs than when hosting other rappers on his own tracks. Still, 25 radiates a sense of hard-won perspective that I like. Herbo sounded 65 when he was 16, and he still sounds 65 when he’s 25. No matter how established he gets, he’ll probably always sound like somebody just dumped a bucket of lava down his throat. But Herbo is doing things with that voice and with the harsh experiences that the voice reflects. He already carries himself like an important person. In rap music, that’s exactly what he is.
1. Sheff G – “Start Sum Shyt”
There is so much tension in that beat. Even after the drums drop in, I feel like a bus is about to fly out of the sky and crash on my head.
2. Wiki – “Highs And Lows” (Feat. REED & HunnaLoe)
Wandering-samurai music. Music for contemplating man’s inhumanity while cherry blossoms settle peacefully on the ground around you. Music for watching blood pool gracefully at your feet.
3. ShooterGang Kony – “Over They Head”
This sounds like hyphy for actual spectres, which brings an entirely new connotation to the phrase “ghostride the whip.” Maybe it’s that spooky organ. I love a spooky organ.
4. Richie Wess – “Alot To Say” (Feat. Rich The Kid)
The sleepy calm in the voice of Tampa rapper Richie Wess is aspirational. I need to get to the point where everything I say sounds bored and matter-of-fact.
5. ShittyBoyz – “3 Man Weave”
This thing where all three ShittyBoyz switch off every bar seems just bafflingly difficult, like a scam-rap version of math-rock. It makes no sense, and yet they pull it off.