GEN F: Lil Herb Expands Drill from the Inside
The Terror Town MC talks Chi-Raq and Nicki Minaj.
From the magazine: ISSUE 92, June/July 2014
Listening to Lil Herb’s husky voice, it’s easy to forget that the artist born Herbert Wright is barely old enough to buy cigarettes. Over the phone from his hometown of Chicago, the 18-year-old speaks as gravelly as he raps, and there’s a sense that he’s seen more heartbreak than most. His debut mixtape, Welcome to Fazoland, released this winter but two years in the making, is a tribute to a friend killed before his time. “Fazo was one of the first people that passed away in my age group,” Herb says. “It meant a lot to me, because it really hurt us.” Recounting life in the South Side neighborhood nicknamed Terror Town, he adds, matter-of-factly: “It’s an environment that I adapted to.”
Herb’s music is drill—the Chicago-born style of punishing beats and loyalty-focused, trigger-happy street stories—but alongside longtime friend and collaborator Lil Bibby, he’s also expanding drill from the inside. While the style has developed a reputation for middle-finger-to-the-future nihilism, Fazoland benefits from Herb’s unflinching emotional honesty. His songs grapple frankly with Chicago’s gang and homicide epidemic, bouncing from challenges to the police department’s motives (Why the cops hot on our block?/ Man, there’s violence everywhere, he raps on “Koolin”) to apologies to his mother for bad behavior (You so intelligent, you always kept up wit' what lies said/ I’m so pathetic, I could never keep up wit' my lying ass, on “Mamma I’m Sorry”). Since drill rose to prominence a few years ago, lyrical bankruptcy has remained one of its most common critiques; Herb’s way with words defies the stereotype. “Rap is people who tell stories—that’s real rap to me,” he says. “I try to be lyrical, but it’s about being lyrical and telling a story. It’s about making sense. I look up to rappers that you can relate to—everything else don’t make sense.”
Herb started rapping four years ago, around the time of Fazo’s death, though he admits he didn’t start taking it seriously until more recently, inspired in part by other musicians in his family. His grandfather was a member of ’60s R&B group The Radiants, and his uncle Kay-Tone made up one half of early ’90s rap duo D 2 Tha S. Herb first found success with 2012′s “Kill Shit,” an icy, hookless banger with Lil Bibby that got Drake tweeting Herb’s lyrics. “I try to be as humble as possible,” Herb says. “People were around me like, ‘Yeah, you hot,’ and I started feeling myself a little. But it’s all about work to me. It’s about getting better, and yeah, I feel like I got better.”
That’s a modest claim, especially in the wake of “Chi-Raq,” Herb’s out-of-nowhere collaboration with Nicki Minaj, released this spring. Beyond a few hundred-thousand plays, the song also attracted some controversy as Nicki, a New Yorker, took to using Chicago’s uncharitable nickname. With a hint of resignation in his voice, Herb defends the track title as something that needs to be said, even if it’s ugly: “We always called it Chi-Raq. The body count in Chicago’s higher than Iraq. A word don’t change nothing. It’s gonna always be the same.” Still, Herb’s critiques of his own city are earned, much in the way that family members can talk shit but acquaintances can’t; they exist in balance with an unconditional connection to his hometown. “I love being in other cities too,” Herb says, “but I love Chicago. I think being in other cities reminds me of how fucked up Chicago is, but no other place is like it in the world.”