Will Hagle wanted to be the Damn Shawty OK meme when he was a kid.
G Herbo shouldn’t have made it to this point. Not literally, like in the sense that he raps about friends dying often in a place nicknamed Chiraq, the city that Kanye told us most don’t make it past the age of Herbo’s album title. It’s just that it’s shocking that he made an LP this good, a decade after the outside world first paid attention to drill. The energy of “Kill Shit” remains as sustainable as our flaming sewage ocean. The internet’s attention span is trending opposite the Covid chart. We can’t make room in our playlists for an old Chief Keef. We have PTSD.
25 is a statement album. It’s shiny and complete. Like the passion he brought to off-mic pursuits, Herbo’s whole heart is in it.
The G might as well stand for Giannis. The rapper is a year younger than the guy on the Bucks. Both came into their respective leagues with undeniable, unique talent. G Herbo’s husky voice and reports from the streets were wise beyond his years. Giannis has stayed in Milwaukee and Herbo has, like many of his peers, stayed in Chicago rather than fleeing for the coasts*. But, until this year, neither had quite reached either the proverbial or literal Finals. Either by tragic circumstance or the fading interest of media and fans, rappers rarely get the chance to develop. Giannis taking four seasons to become an All-Star wouldn’t be possible if there was a musical equivalent. Our instant-gratification culture doesn’t allow it. If you’re not LeBron in Year 1, then you never will be. Herbo has always had the technique. One-on-one, he can out-rap most anyone in his draft class. To bring all the other necessary elements together, all he needed was time.
Anyone who forgot about Herbo when the death count on Chicago’s Southside stopped being newsworthy was as wrong as this tweet:
Some dude named Giannis Antetokounmp is in the Dunk Contest this year…I think we can officially declare this event DEAD
— KFC (@KFCBarstool) February 14, 2015
The narrative on 25 is recognizable, even if the path is uniquely Herbo’s. Young rapper who talked about life on the street is older, wiser, and richer now. Still living a certain way, but different. “I’ve moved on, but my heart’s still in the trenches,” he says on the chorus of “Whole Hearts.” The distance of time hasn’t led to a distance in emotion, but it does strengthen the reflective nature of his lyrics. Herbo says he’s only 25 but feels like he’s lived 10 lifetimes. A quarter-century felt like a full one. Asynchrony has been a consistent theme in Herbo’s music forever. On Ballin’ Like I’m Kobe, he said he was “19 going on 39.” When rapping from a young age with a mature perspective is kind of your reputation, actually growing up presents new challenges. On 25, Herbo finds the balance.
The opening tracks of 25 address Herbo’s desire to move on from the illegal and violent antics of his youth, distancing himself while maintaining the connection. A choir opens by singing “I don’t want to die anymore.” On the next song, Herbo enlists Polo G and Lil Tjay to declare that he doesn’t want to cry anymore, either.
Money helps. The hook of “2 Chains,” a track that references street life like a tough to kick addiction, is “Bitch I’m rich / Bitch I’m rich / Bitch I’m rich / Rich as shit.” “Doughboy” opens with Herbo talking about a video he watched of himself freestyling at age 18. He addresses his journey, saying he didn’t expect to make it to where he was now, citing his handwork and dedication for the reason his story’s been written the way it was. The song’s opening lyrics are: “Now we’re really rich.” On “Trenches Know My Name” Herbo says, “I’ve been gangsta since forever, I’ma die like this / I got tired of toting Berettas and that’s why I’m rich.” On “No Jail Time” Herbo flicks his Bic like Wayne and raps with the same energy. The hook asks, “How the fuck I get rich no jail time?” A good question.
This year, feds hit Herbo with yet another charge. This time for lying to FBI agents about the last fraud charge. Herbo was one of several individuals indicted in a case involving a Chicago show promoter who allegedly used stolen identification to make more than $1 million dollars in purchases on things like private jets and trips to Jamaica over the course of four years. G Herbo could’ve been dead like his friends. People won’t stop trying to lock him away in jail. Back to the Kanye song. He wasn’t supposed to make it. But now he’s 25 and telling us how it all makes him feel. Joke’s on no one.
Herbo had a son in 2018. As he says on “Trenches Know My Name”: “Beat prison systems, my youngin ain’t see me in chains.” His son speaks on “Cold World,” saying he likes the song his father is working on and, finally, “I love daddy.” Herbo says he sees himself and his friends in their children, and he’s in the position to make life a little bit better for them.
Witnessing the murder of his friend Jacobi Herring, aka Kobe, remains a traumatic topic that Herbo confronts on the record. Kobe left behind two children. Another 21-year-old shot on 79th street.
It’s hard to overstate the impact that Juice WRLD had on his city in his brief but fruitful career. Within the past few years, talking about anxiety and depression in rap music has run the cycle of coolness. It went from being bold and different to cliché and overplayed. Herbo has been talking about how Kobe’s death impacted him for years, and the Juice-featuring single “PTSD” is the biggest track he’s ever put out. But the passage of time and the influence of his late peer allow Herbo to explore a fuller spectrum of emotions on 25: “Know this pain lay deep inside of me I just can’t get it out / So now I feel like shooting / You can’t wait to let it out too, I feel like you / In a fight with my anxiety I feel like Juice.”
25 itself is a statement album, but the song called “Statement” is a different type of statement altogether. The first minute is a stuttering, chopped up soul sample with no drums. Once the beat comes in, the style is familiar. It’s the most atypical song G Herbo’s voice has graced, but it doesn’t sound out of place. There’s another soul sample on “No Jail Time.” “Drill,” featuring Rowdy Rebel, sounds like it could be a Pop Smoke anthem, showing how the sounds of Herbo’s city have seeped out and infiltrated others like the best local creations inevitably do.
Humble Beast was too disjointed, lacking his new enlightened clarity. PTSD could have been the one. Fourteen tracks, one of them a radio hit. The February 28, 2020 release date didn’t help. 25 arrives at the right time. After more than a decade of development, G Herbo is a longtime veteran who might just have secured his first Finals MVP. He shouldn’t be here, and he doesn’t want to die anymore, but the strength of 25 keeps us hopeful for the numbers that come next.
*unclear where he lives, but I like to imagine it’s not Calabasas, and yes I know Chief Keef has to be there