Lil Herb Pistol P Project

[Self-Released; 2014]

Styles: drill
Others: Lil Bibby, Katie Got Bandz, King Louie

As a white man at a cultural moment characterized by extreme acceleration of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death, I feel a responsibility to write a Lil Herb review that deliberately refuses to “whitesplain” its musical validity. Of course, that’s a recursive process by which I’ll command undue power if I’m not careful. Nick Henderson wrote a solid review of last year’s Welcome to Fazoland, in which he briefly indicted reductive press descriptions of “Chiraq” hip-hop, but some might argue that he did so at the expense of weaving a new narrative of Lil Herb’s brilliance through which bourgeois creatives can “understand” Herbo’s purpose without hearing it with their own ears and evaluating it according to a sincere and appropriate system of values. I first encountered Henderson’s review as an unaffiliated member of TMT’s readership, but as a writer, I kept Fazoland filed in my brain under “interesting” and splattered it somewhere in my personal top 20 come list season, having heard it only a few times. One of the most revelatory consequences of organizing our year-end list according to a normative hierarchy is that, for all of Fazoland’s singular brilliance, it ended up being placed at #50 by an algorithm. That same algorithm pegged Dean Blunt’s Black Metal as #1 in a year that marked Blunt’s ascension to outsider superstardom, championed in a revealing Wire interview and reviewed in The Guardian. Both records were assigned racial significance by TMT and the rest of our little corner of the music press (if not their creators), and despite the best of intentions, their positions at both extremities of our list felt political.

With the prominent exception of “Where I Reside,” one of the most numbingly aggressive tracks Lil Herb has ever made, Pistol P Project stands in strong opposition to the commonly projected theme of Welcome to Fazoland, which is the hyperlocalization of urban difficulties. Most of the lyrics on this mixtape tend toward extreme generalization and speak to the listener in the imperative, urging her to survey her own surroundings and identify with Herbo’s pride and anger. “Jugghouse” fixates on the extraordinary qualities of a specific locality while simultaneously insisting that the same shit is happening just down the street from wherever the tape is currently being bumped. “Play It Smart,” one of the very few collaborations on the Project, features Herbo and Jace running down a list of sage suggestions for a young prospective “hustler” and “menace,” drawing a clear line in the sand (or in and around the neighborhoods of Chicago) dictating to whom this mixtape is addressed, but not getting hung up for a moment on its placement. If Welcome to Fazoland was about accomplishing the titular introduction by taking the listener on a brief journey through but one of many South Chicago neighborhoods, Pistol P Project finds Lil Herb in a position of concern for the young people coming of age just down the street, all of whom are being made familiar with the legal and socioeconomic deck stacked against them. The imperative tone is accented by the pointedly aggressive clarity of diction by which Lil Herb is distinguished, but often his quips sound like they’re coming from a place of good faith.

If it weren’t already glaringly obvious, Lil Herb didn’t make Pistol P Project for a white kid writing remotely for Tiny Mix Tapes from Arizona. At least Welcome to Fazoland took up the task of building a world for an audience of oblivious spectators, even if that world was often so vague as to be described using a single word, like “hellhole” in the refrain to lead single “Koolin.” With Pistol P, Lil Herb speaks to an audience that is simultaneously very diverse, composed of myriad experiences encountered within the borders of Fazoland (drug house operators, teenage hustlers, dishonest friends on “Real,” and even the opps themselves on “Money”), and also very narrow, bracketing out the outsiders he previously welcomed. Instead of sitting with the listener and recalling tales of the acts of transgression that occur “On The Corner,” Herbo is screaming out to her about the terrible things happening “Where I Reside.” As he becomes a little more self-aware and less concerned with the impossible task of painting an exhaustive picture of his surroundings, I find myself increasingly drawn to the categories to which I hear my friends referring in order to evaluate just about any rap mixtape. At times, I feel like the only responsible thing I can say about Pistol P Project is what a good friend said when I asked for his thoughts: “Shit slaps.”

Still, there’s a difference between Dean Blunt’s stated wish for the listener to “stay out of it” and Lil Herb’s more confessional pedagogy. The hypnotic refrain of penultimate track “Heaven Or Hell” (“Heaven or hell/ Dead or in jail”) speaks with incredible clarity to a set of circumstances that left me feeling empty and broken as a white American in 2014, which is why I think it’s important to write about Lil Herb’s music even if it’s a discomforting break from regular activity on the site and even if anything I write sounds misinformed. Still, the problem lies in the bourgeois character of my concern as distant sympathy, untouched by the real consequences of last year’s horrific friction. It’s meaningful that “Heaven Or Hell” isn’t Pistol P Project’s final statement, but is succeeded by “4 Minutes Of Hell Part 4,” a track that assumes knowledge of Lil Herb’s other work while also commenting virulently on systemic racism in an aggressively apolitical way, refusing to entertain the illusion that the listener’s hell will outlive the song’s duration. On the finale, Herbo aims his aggression not at white America or white authorities, but at “black police [who] try not to notice like they ain’t killin’ niggas,” almost certainly trying to fixate the most politically sensitive bars of his career on the most specific subset of his potential audience. I hold that, as a white writer, to consider a drill release in the abstract and give it a generous scaled rating based on my own characterization is to clumsily handle my responsibility as an outsider commenting on someone else’s art. I can say that, at 10 tracks (only a couple of which have features), this mixtape is clean and focused, if not adventurous. Moreover, I can offer that criticism knowing that my word is not the first nor is it the last on Lil Herb’s career or Pistol P Project’s place in his discography, and that what people say about him years from now will be informed by a tableau of critical perspectives, including those for whom this mixtape is the Music Release Of The Year and those for whom this mixtape is confounding or downright uninteresting. Maybe the real problem is in letting an algorithm sort through those perspectives; after all, people like me writing about music like this is destined to say more about criticism as an institution than anything else. Still, if there’s a justifying mechanism for this wall of words, it’s that Lil Herb is excellent, and that excellence speaks even to those for whom it ought to mean nothing. That and nothing else.

Links: Lil Herb

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