G Herbo's shown promise throughout his career, and "Humble Beast" feels like a culmination of sorts.
Of all the young rappers who've been thrown into turbulent lives on Chicago's south side and come out sounding like they've seen more than most of us would in five lifetimes, G Herbo's always seemed the oldest. Chief Keef may have been the most startling example, blowing up at 16, and Lil Bibby may be the only one with a voice that's sounded like a 64-year-old cigar smoker since he was 17, but Herbo's wizened qualities go far deeper than surface-level attributes. On 2014's Welcome To Fazoland, released when he was 18, he may have been the youngest rapper to ever write a track apologizing to his mother for things he did "as a kid." On the following year's Ballin' Like I'm Kobe, he said he no longer feared death because he was "happy for the years [he] got to see," and later accurately described himself as "19 going on 39." Both of those tapes were named after friends gunned down in their teens. At a point in adolescence and young adulthood when most artists stunt and boast, Herbo has been acting like a man in the twilight of his life writing his memoirs.
As a listener, it's selfish to demand that Herbo keep up what must be the enormously traumatic documentation of his and his friends' darkest days, especially considering that he's been a nationally-recognized rapper for almost four years now. But the fact is, every time Herbo's done something out-of-character, it lacks the autobiographical depth that makes him a must-listen artist. The most jarring example of this was the two song stretch ("Pull Up" into "Control") on last year's stopgap Strictly 4 My Fans where Herb became a bedroom rapper, talking about sex without being particularly witty or tuneful about it. Each one of his projects has had similar, if less egregious, examples of this awkwardness, whether it be WTF's glossy "Love 2 Stunt" or BLIK's turn up anthem "Rollin'." Few rappers in recent memory have come out of the gate sounding as determined to tell their own stories as accurately and powerfully as possible, and thusly, every Herbo bar that sounds like it could come out of someone else's mouth feels like wasted time.
Of all of Herbo's projects, Humble Beast has by far the fewest wasted moments. It is, as he says during a spoken interlude on powerful closer "No Way Out," a "blueprint," a true-to-life, rags-to-riches tale that encompasses much more than Herbo himself. He matures further (who knew that was even humanly possible?) by relating his own experiences to institutional problems, and in doing so, ensures that he's not retreading subject matter. During the particularly hefty intro track "Street," which consists of a single verse and no hook, he introduces the conflict that courses throughout the album with a particularly memorable couplet: "Only place some n****s been besides the block is custody/In the richest nation ever, that's just so fucked up to me." The subject of Southsiders' lack of privilege rears its head again during self-empowerment anthem "Crown," the harrowing "Red Snow," the aforementioned closer, and especially on the pivotal "Malcolm," a semi-fictionalized version of a story Herbo's alluded to all too many times in his music. Those are the most powerful examples, but throughout the entire project, Herbo never lets us forget the overarching themes of the album we're listening to.
Humble Beast does have moments that stray from the thesis, namely the section bookended by chest-thumping cuts "Lil' Gangbangin' Ass" and "Man Now," which has the Lil Uzi Vert-assisted "Everything" and the one sex rap track of the album, "I Like," in between. Even so, these don't distract from the flow nearly as much as similar digressions on previous Herbo projects. "Lil Gangbangin' Ass" is an important setup for "Malcolm" and "Crown," the latter of which has Herbo describing how starstruck ("on some street shit") he was to see Bump J as a kid. "Everything" skillfully explains how his background lends itself to unchecked gluttony of all kinds ("Seen dead bodies, everything, so I drove the Ghost") and contains another big-up to his mother. On "I Like," Herbo's taste in women reflects his outlook on life, in that he's cool with anything unless it's fake. The hook on "Man Now" might be boastful in its talk of diamonds dancing and crowds swooning, but its verses act as backstory— who wouldn't be doing the same if they'd seen all of this shit and expected to die at any minute?
Herbo's past issues with subject matter were also reflected in the accompanying production. On WTF, Herbo emerged with a few songs that blended drill with chipmunk soul, a thoroughly Chicago sound that also hadn't been attempted by anyone else. Those increased in number on BLIK, but they still competed for airtime with boilerplate drill and trap tracks. This time around, that original sound's so baked into Humble Beast that it could almost be mistaken for a turn-of-the-millennium Roc-A-Fella album with updated drums. A motley crew of producers that includes Thelonious Martin, Maaly Raw, Don Cannon, and DJ L split duties, with only one of them (L) appearing more than once. You'd never know it though; Humble Beast sounds as unified as most one-producer albums.
Humble Beast doesn't feel like a debut album, partly due to Herbo's many preceding mixtapes, and partly due to release delays. Mostly though, its fully-formed theme and sound are the result of a rapper who's had this in him since day one, and has finally realized that his own style is enough to carry 50 minutes of music by itself. Herbo's able to stay true to himself (linking up with his longtime right-hand man Bibby on the tag-team thriller "Mirror" and delivering the fifth installment of his "4 Minutes of Hell" series), keep things trendy with Uzi Vert and Lil Yachty features (though bonus track "This N That" is the album's one entirely unnecessary moment), and above all, keep maturing and progressing. Humble Beast features a lot of spoken word interludes, and that's key. Herbo is speaking directly to us, sounding as confident and classic as his childhood idols Jay-Z and Nas, telling a story that he's known is important and necessary all along.