Lil Herb Welcome To Fazoland

[NLMB; 2014]

Styles: drill, “Real Hip-Hop”
Others: Lil Bibby, King Louie, Lil Reese, Chief Keef, DJ L

If the purpose of a mixtape intro is to get the listener psyched for the direction the tape is about to head in, the terse, DJ editorial-free segment that kicks off Welcome To Fazoland locates Lil Herb’s voice itself as the focal instrument. Herb’s flow is an oblong yet agile snarl, dicing words and phrases up into dare-devilish syllables, round in the middle and gravely around the edges, wrapping around the columns of the beat in a sonorous latticework rife with internal rhymes and unexpected diversions of rhythm. Barely edging over a minute long and compiled largely out of excerpts from tracks compiled on last year’s excellent The Best Of Lil Herb And Lil Bibby: Heir Apparents, the intro works as a heavily-abridged recap of what Herb’s been up to for the last two years — specifically, pioneering an emotionally spiked, redbeam-sharp variation on his home city’s native hip-hop style of drill — as well as a mission statement for Welcome To Fazoland:

If you lowkey, better hope it last ‘cause we on that/
And I don’t think y’all want that/
Leave a nigga stinkin’ on Colfax/
Speeding in the Lincoln, no throwback/
Now I’m back up on the Essex block/
.30 poppers with a extra Glock/
My niggas got 47 sweating hot/
So you better run when that beretta cocked
– “My Hood” (feat. Lil Bibby)

As Meaghan Garvey points out in her excellent piece about music journalism’s tendency to form reductive narratives around the place we know as “Chiraq,” hyper-local details that serve as crucial markers of identity for the artists involved are often lost to more sweeping generalizations about the scary “South Side,” and it’s important to note that Herb (like partner-in-grind Lil Bibby, hometown heavyweight King Louie, and DJ L, who furnished all the beats for Heir Apparents and two tracks on Fazoland) actually hails from an area on the East Side known as Terror Town a.k.a. 150 Roc Block a.k.a. Fazoland (near 79th and Essex, if you’re looking to get specific). The NLMB (No Limit Muskegon Boys, or alternatively, Never Leave My Brother) clique Herb belongs to consists of former members of the Almighty Black P. Stones and Gangster Disciples gangs who broke off and “cliqued up” into a more beneficial formation — this movement away from top-down super-gangs toward small, hyper-localized cliques is crucial to both the violence and creativity spilling out of today’s Chiraq, the product of a lost structure and a displaced peoples.

The renegade, cross-affiliated energy of Herb’s clique bleeds through into his take on the drill style, which respects hometown influences — the triplet-hawking syllablism of hometown heavyweight King Louie, the stutter-stop delivery trademark to one Lil Reese, even the monolithic wall-of-violence characteristic of Chief Keef — while resisting simple imitation, blending them as he sees fit and forging into whatever territory suits his utterly commanding flow. Beyond his local influences, there’s something about Herb’s presence on the mic that is undeniably his own, a dose of emotional urgency and a gift for words unseen in a Chicago emcee since the days of Twista and Bump J. Armed with a give-no-fucks, playboy swagger, a mastery of street culture hashtags to boot and a battery of gnarled, acrobatic flows, Herb’s music is made all the more thrilling for the need it fills in today’s “Chiraq” narrative — that is, the first young drill emcee that can really spit, so well in fact that his music has the potential to make “Real Hip-Hop” fans finally shut up about Chicago’s lack of bars.

10 birds in the Louie bag/
Wrapped up in the Glad top/
Hop straight in the Audi/
9 tucked in the stash box/
Got thousands everywhere/
There’s money piling everywhere/
Why the cops hot on our block?/
Man, there’s violence everywhere
– “Koolin”

Welcome To Fazoland, nearly two years in the making, is a transitional document for Herb, charged with the task of showcasing his theretofore style while simultaneously translating it to a larger audience. Luckily, the pressure to appeal widely hasn’t changed Herb’s resolve to convey his reality on his own terms, as this self-assuredness is part of what makes drill a vital contemporary art form. Yes, the genre at its most formulaic can be revoltingly repetitious, but people who complain about Chief Keef’s poor enunciation or a lack of bars in drill are missing the point: inasmuch as the mastery of violence espoused in much of drill stems from an environmentally-bound nihilism, the sonic structure of the music calls for a divisive aesthetic — onomatopoeic trademarks like Keef’s “Bang bang!,” the rubber-on-cement-imitating “Scurrrrrrrrr,” Young Chop’s trademark scream, and, of course, the ubiquitous machine-gun hi-hat make drill a phenomenological art form rather than a logocentric one. New artists like weirdo West Siders Sicko Mobb are pushing this post-human, sound-effect laden aspect to Chicago’s youth culture in their detuned take on bop, the exuberantly positive yin to drill’s fatalistic yang.

So even while Herb’s raps unfold narratives with the effortlessness of a campfire storyteller, a consistent, fact-revealing narrative remains less important than the conveyed trajectory of bullets across the nightmare-scape of sound, the immersion of the listener into a harsh, punishing sonic environment, and the creative sublimation of violent energies. None of this visceral musicality is lost to Herb’s emphasis on lyrical finesse, as the emcee sports a language-as-instrument malleability within his voice that conveys a true intimacy to the realities he’s attempting to translate for the audience. The son of local rap star Kay-Tone (half of Twista-era group D 2 Tha S) and the grandson of notable Chicago Blues singer Leonard “Baby Doo” Caston, Herb’s musical roots are easy to hear in the way he jumps on a beat and throttles it by the 1’s and 3’s, siting in on the emotional timbre and wrangling out of it a song, such as in the exhilarating life-story/manifesto and album centerpiece that is “4 Minutes Of Hell, Part 3”:

All the shit that I saw/
You expect me to sit on the porch?/
Every moment is yours/
Freeze up and you fall by the torch/
Where I’m from/
Better not front/
In the city I’m from/
Homicides on Sunday/
In the city I’m from

While there is certainly no shortage of lyrically brutal moments on WTF, Herb’s goal is never to shut the listener out of his reality, but rather to draw them in and bring them along. Like any good drill emcee, he harnesses the potential of violent mastery and materialist boasting, but he also frequently shows a vulnerability that’s rare in contemporary hip-hop, let alone Chicago raps. From the title of the mixtape — Fazoland takes its name from Herb’s late friend Fazon “Fazo” Robinson — to the numerous references to Kobe, another of Herb’s fallen NLMB brothers, to the poignant, Kanye-reminiscent “Momma, I’m Sorry,” the ghosts of the 18-year-old emcee’s short but deep past are seared into the brutal simplicity of his rhymes:

I remember comin’ in/
Middle of the night/
My eyes red/
You asked me why/
I didn’t wanna tell you/
Cause my guy’s dead

The chaotic backdrop of Chiraq is a lingering trauma throughout Welcome To Fazoland, regulated only by the lightning-fast, memetic processes of slinging, shooting, and moving money — as a result, many of Herb’s rhymes take the shape of emotional reflection punctuated by bite-sized chunks of narrative, shaved down to their barest bones through the economy of slick-talking, brutally honest Chicago slang. Album highlight “On The Corner” starts off bouncy and slick, but when Herb’s verse gets rolling, he transforms the movement completely through the sheer rhythmic insistence of his voice and the taut resonance of the lyrics:

We ain’t for none over here/
Gotta keep a gun over here/
Boy, don’t come over here/
Cause we got them drums over here/
Let it drum over here/
You don’t wanna hear the drum in your ear/
40 rounds, lay him down/
Told you bro ‘nem ain’t for none over here/
You don’t wanna see them lights in your face/
I ain’t talkin’ a parade walk/
Talkin’ real pipes in your face/
Lights flyin’ out the pipes when they spray

Stylistically, Welcome To Fazoland sees a continuation and partial expansion of the stuff that Herb has made his trademark thus far. There are plenty of cold drill tracks here, seared through with hi-hat ripples and turns of calculated violence, but the hardest material is interspersed with moments of relief, like the bouncy, string-padded “Fight Or Flight,” where Herb adapts an uncharacteristically chilled-out demeanor: “And it’s cool/ I’m still livin’ over East/ We still chillin’/ Sippin’ lean/ Smokin’ Swishers/ Stackin’ hunnits to the ceilin’/ We still winnin’/ We just fightin’ to survive/ It’s a shame I gotta ride/ With this nina on my side.” Collaborative tracks are sparse and limited to artists who Herb has a direct, real-life relation to: Lil Reese shows up to declaim “woulda coulda shoulda” types on “On My Soul;” King Louie spits a characteristically triplet-sick verse over “Another Day;” Lil Durk drops the devastating/mindblowing line, “Instagram can get your life snatched” on “On The Corner;” and Bibby finally makes a trademarkedly modest appearance on album closer “All I Got”: “Goin’ hard for my niggas/ That’s all I got.”

While the guest appearances are all worthwhile contributions, the comparative lack of features on Fazoland cement Herb’s life-size presence as the sticking point of the tape, where his paradoxes and struggles flourish unmitigated, pushing and pulling against each other for space: the names of the fallen and the corners they used to stand on, the materialist flash of True Religion skullcaps and Robin’s Jeans, the diameters of various firearm ammunitions, drugs, the unyielding love of Herb’s mother, and the deep drive that motivates him to do what he does. Still young and finding his footing in a perpetually hostile but rapidly expanding world, Herb is internally conflicted as he is confident. This only makes his raps more vital, more fit to take on a 21st-century audience, carrying a chip on his shoulder for bullshit, rallying with wit and blunt force against fakeness in all its multifarious and deceiving forms, whether in the street, in the structures of America, or in the souls of human beings. For White America, for the Opps, for anyone calling themselves a rapper nowadays, for anyone who gets in his way, Lil Herb is a Problem.

Links: Lil Herb

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