On his full-length collaboration with Atlanta producer Southside, Herbo loosens up, letting his guard down as he ventures into new musical and emotional territory.
The most visible moment of G Herbo's career was impossible to predict. A chance encounter with Three 6 Mafia’s “Who Run It” beat on a radio show earlier this year amounted to an unforgettable freestyle and a viral moment no-gimmicks artists like Herbo seldom experience. The carefree, grinning energy displayed by the rapper in the clip, as he and the host swivel in unison to his addictive-in-its-unorthodoxy flow, is a feeling that is not often present in his recorded output; a space the rapper has been known to use as a place to work through the anxieties brought on by the harsh circumstances of his coming-of-age in Chicago. 2017’s Humble Beast, Herbo’s proper debut, but really his fifth album-quality full-length release since 2014, found him deeply entrenched in the stories of the troubled youth of his city, best illustrated in the masterful narrative track “Malcolm.” While he’s escaped a life of violence, the rapper says he still finds it difficult to feel at ease in his hometown, which would explain his arrest for gun possession earlier this year. It’s one of the reasons why he chose to team up with Atlanta producer Southside, allowing him to explore a more extemporaneous approach to music, not unlike that of his beloved “Who Run It” freestyle. "We would hook up in Atlanta, Miami, or L.A. and just hop in $200K whips, swerve through traffic—really just have fun and enjoy life—then go to the lab and capture that feeling," Herbo told Complex of working with the producer. "It's that vibe. I can't get that feeling in Chicago, because Chicago ain't a place you can relax and let your guard down. Not even for a second." The “swerving” nature of these meetups created a new alter-ego for the rapper, Swervo, which doubles as the title of their collaborative project.
Though the reference may be lost on many of Herbo's younger fans, Swervo's cover is an homage to Eric B. and Rakim's 1988 classic Follow The Leader, a shining example of a thrilling album-length chemistry between rapper and producer. As emcees, Rakim and Herbo are not all that different. Each has a tendency to pack as many syllables as humanly possible into each bar and each possesses a deep monotone delivery. They are expressive writers but not expressive vocalists, conveying emotion in their words and allowing themselves to focus solely on barrelling forward with their voices. There are times where Herbo's forward momentum is so strong it sounds as though he's recorded his verses line by line to get the proper run up to each bar. Like Eric B, Southside provides a fair amount of space for his wordy collaborator, focusing largely on driving drum programming; often adding only one simple melodic element to his compositions. The BPMs tend to be on the faster side, challenging Herbo to charge full speed ahead throughout.
Chicago and Atlanta are equally represented on the project in terms of collaborators. "How I Grew Up" pairs Herbo with ATL’s 21 Savage for one of many moments where the experiences of rap peers are called into question (“Half of these rappers ain't shit without a chain”). Herb uses the sheer volume of his voice to create one of his most memorable hooks, expertly using repetition to create a refrain that hits harder each time it returns. It sounds like a natural single in the way many tracks from the project do. 21 is the first of a few guests who increasingly offset Herbo’s grid-like rapping. When drill pioneer Chief Keef shows up, his loose approach is completely at odds with Herb’s galloping bars, but it’s a necessary challenge that ultimately pays off in adding variety to the project. Still, it does nothing to prepare us for the off-kilter energy Young Thug brings to “100 Sticks,” including some screechy ad-libs that should require video documentation to prove they were created by a human. Meanwhile, Herbo allows the distorted sub-bass to flow through him and loosens up in a way that compliments his collaborator’s unconventional choices. Perhaps the most surprising appearance comes from Chicago’s new star Juice WRLD, who brings Herbo into a previously unexplored melodic territory. As if inspired, he stretches the mood into the following track, “Letter,” in which he debuts a shockingly sweet singing voice.
“Letter” is a dedication to Herbo’s new son, though it was written before his birth. The vulnerable vocal style fits the subject matter, coloring the rapper’s writing in a way his unmalleable bars normally do not. He celebrates the fact that his son will not face the same adversity he did, acknowledging he was forced to make certain decisions as a self-preservation tactic. "You ain't gotta come up and make all those stupid decisions like I / Ain't gotta thug to survive / I sold drugs to survive," he raps. He shares an anecdote about replacing the usual smoke in his house with "burning sages" to make sure the child is healthy and reflects on his father's parenting in an engaging detail that only the best storytellers possess. These kind of revelations are all over the album, and shows that the tension-free recording process has allowed him to open up more, whether that be breaking down the economics of his rap career ("Rap pay my mama rent, YouTube pay my hoe rent
Merch will pay your hoe rent, iTunes pay some more shit") to speaking directly to those going through the same hardships he did ("We was young and dumb, I ain't know how to fucking listen / So pay attention, hopefully I get to teach you different").
Though Follow The Leader inspired the cover, Herbo and Southside liken themselves to 2Pac and Dr. Dre on the one track that features both the rapper and producer (who goes by Yung Sizzle as an emcee) grabbing the mic. It's not the only time Pac's name is dropped. "I'm living thug life like Tupac Shakur / Swervo, you always rap about Tupac Shakur," he says on the restrained "Bonjour." Seeing that Swervo finds him bringing nuance to the discussion of gang violence, expertly balancing heavy and light subject matter, and putting more of himself forward, Pac seems like the ideal artist for Herbo to model his career after. Even after seemingly having it all figured out on Humble Beast, the 22-year-old rapper only continues to grow. Really, there's no limit.