Is there anything more startling than hearing a 19 year old kid saying that he doesn’t fear death because he’s “happy for all the years [he] got to see”? Lil Herb’s still around 57 years shy of the average male life expectancy in the U.S., but you don’t need to be a super-sleuth to figure out why optimism isn’t his strong suit. Hell, you barely even have to listen to his music. All three of his mixtapes– Welcome To FazolandPistol P Project and now Ballin’ Like I’m Kobe— are named after kids he grew up with who were gunned down in Chicago, with the most recent one bearing artwork that shows Herb visiting the grave of Kobe (Jacobi D. Herring). Couple those fallen friends with the ones who have served time, and Herb’s crew’s motto of “Never Leave My Brothers” (NLMB) becomes an increasingly tall order. Herb stays true to this credo through his music which, more so any other rapper today, acts as a tribute to the dead and a cautionary tale of survival in the country’s murder capital.  

He’s far from the first to have “made it out” of the South Side since youth violence and drill music began to dovetail around 2011, with Chief Keef paving the way for Lil Reese, Lil Durk, King Louie and several others whose success seemed inseparable from the war-ravaged landscape of post-Cabrini-Green Chicago. Almost without exception, they began their careers making music that revolved around gangs and guns, not necessarily glorifying the lifestyle, but displaying a nihilistic outlook on life that was unmistakably a product of their shared environment. After this wave crested, and most parties involved were scooped up by labels in a feeding frenzy of sorts, came Lil Herb and Lil Bibby, who added nuance to their forebears’ South Side observations.

Bibby debuted in late 2013 with Free Crack, and Herb in early 2014 with Fazoland, both equally vital starting points for each artist, but the months that followed held much different fortunes for the frequent collaborators. An XXL Freshman spot, several collaborations with Juicy J, and a DJ Drama-hosted sequel that featured heavy-hitters like Wiz Khalifa and Jadakiss all fell into Bibby’s lap, while Herb’s only brush with the mainstream came on “Chiraq,” a track where he got his flow Drake’d by Nicki Minaj. To this day, it’s unclear why commercial rap latched onto one and not the other (especially because neither has a huge solo hit to their names), but Herb didn’t seem to take it that personally, with his only public gripe coming in the form of an XXL-targeting loosie

Instead of the populist approach Bibby took, Herb’s next move was to turn further inward, barely taking on any features and getting the world prepared for his Fazoland follow-up. He began promoting BLIK midway through 2014, but chose to release PPP as a surprise around Christmas. Far from a throwaway, the brief tape still felt unsubstantial compared to its predecessor– a stopgap release that found Herb exploring interesting collaborations with producers and guests that were out of his comfort zone. Now that BLIK is here, it’s very clear why Herb was hyping it for so long.

This is one of the most powerful tapes of the year, with tracks that grab you by the collar and shake you into submission with their soul-baring honesty. Every line Herb raps, whether political, violent, philosophical or (on rare occasions) celebratory, is cut with all the stress and sadness that’s accumulated over 19 years. He truly sounds “19 years going on 39,” as he says on highlight cut “Remember,” on which he also succinctly sums up his “fuck the world” mentality to outsiders: “I’m already gonna die by the system, so why abide by the system?”

It’s clear that this “system” that Herb rebukes includes aspects of American life like the racist prison-industrial complex (“Now the judge hang us with 100 years, used to hang us by a tree”), the NSA (“I ain’t fuckin with them insta-feds”) and the American dream itself (“You see a buncha mansions around here? Do you? No? Okay, well that’s reality”), but it could also be applied to the current climate of rap. Herb has, on occasion, shown himself to be more than able to churn out boilerplate drill tracks, but he’s always at his best when he’s letting that predominant style bleed into sounds that aren’t associated with his scene. On Fazoland, he rapped over samples by old soul groups like The Impressions and The Stylistics, and on BLIK, he continues to expand his breadth. The samples deployed here are tied to drill only through the drums they’re paired with. “Bricks And Mansions” could be a Mannie Fresh bounce circa 1998, “100 Days 100 Nights” and “Struggle” sound like sped-up Lykke Li samples, “Don’t Worry” and “Peace Of Mind” sound almost EDM-y, “Pain” sounds like a “We Are The World”-style ballad, and most stunning of all, “Bottom Of The Bottom” has a forlorn medieval quality that sounds Straight Outta Westeros.

The tape’s producers seem to have given Herb their moodiest cuts, which is great because he’s really, really good at hitting those emotional notes without ever being condescending, goody-goody or “woke” (unlike many of his fellow Cinematic signees). What Herb does seem to struggle with are hooks. Some of the best ones on BLIK come courtesy of other vocalists like The Mind and Sonta, but when Herb’s on his own attempting to write celebratory cadences that’ll stick in your mind, he’s shaky at best. “No Limit” and “Rollin,” probably the weakest tracks on here, both have hooks focusing on generic tropes (Master P idolization and molly), and Herb sounds out of his element because he’s not able to color them with emotional heft. (The opening one-two punch of “L’s” and “Watch Me Ball” are the exceptions, with Herb respectively using alliteration and repetition to create memorable hooks.)

At this point, it seems unlikely that Herb will ever be a mainstream icon like babyfaced Bibby (who guests on two tracks here) is shaping up to be, but for someone who’s at his best when he’s at his most personal and reflective, that could be a blessing in disguise. The Cinematic deal is huge, not only because the label’s distributed by Sony offshoot RED, but also because it’s an organization that seems devoted to developing artists who run adjacent or even counter to the mainstream– in other words, it’s unlikely that Johnny Shipes will be forcing DJ Mustard beats or Chris Brown hooks on Herb. The label’s most recent signee, Herb may seem like the black sheep among a roster of dudes more commonly thought of as “conscious” rappers, but like his similarly gang-affiliated contemporary Vince Staples, he’s rewriting the definition of that term. You won’t find G Herbo conspiracy theorizing, searching for his third eye or fetishizing the ’90s— all things that have come to be associated with that subgenre– but in terms of taking stock of his surroundings, the world at large, and his place in it, Herb is one of the most hyperaware rappers in the game. With BLIK, he’s also become one of the best.