G Herbo, formerly Lil Herb, is one of Chicago’s most impressive wordsmiths. Similar to Chance the Rapper, he has yet drop a debut despite building a notable amount of clout through a series of engaging mixtapes. His 2014 breakout Welcome to Fazoland was as defiant and bold as it was self-aware. He was snubbed from the XXL cover the following year. Nowadays, it’s as if we’ve all been behind Herb from the jump - but he knows the difference. Strictly 4 My Fans, his fourth mixtape in two years, wears its intent openly: the real fans come first.

Herbo sees his methods as  “systematic,” with a sharp focus on his ever-evolving message and the way it's presented to his fans. This tape is less ferocious than Fazoland or it’s spiritual successor, Ballin Like I’m Kobe (dedicated to fallen friend Jacobi Herring, as Fazoland was to Fasion Robinson), but with a restrained approach, new terrain s explored. The “Strictly 4 My Fans (Intro),” produced by Chicago producers DJ L Beats and C-Sick, is as menacing as your garden variety Herbo beat, but the following track “Gutta” teases a fresh sound entirely. Over an uplifting sample, Herb repurposes his trademark aggression and engaging storytelling. At times, he’s still as intense as he’s always been, but there’s now a more measured soulfulness to his execution. G Herbo is a different man now, with a different perspective on his future as well as his past.

Where he was once a troubled teen, haunted by losses and suffocated by a lack of options, he's now 21, a perceptive adult, serving as a role model for his city’s youth. His recent interview on The Breakfast Club paints him as a man on a mission: he now speaks of a purpose beyond the music, a desire to use this therapeutic art form to spread a message of positivity and perseverance. Herbo wastes no time putting his success in context, qualifying his fame while reflecting on the current state of this country. “What if Fred Hamp was president, I woke up praying that,” he declares on the intro, “’cause if Trump become the president he might bring slavery back, been on black folks eighty years, might as well bring Reagan back.” The usual urgency isn’t always there, but the stark insight is still there in spades. From the “roaches, rats and apartments, mama smoking, babies starving” opening line on “Gutta” to his exploration of depression on “Tired” (featuring Lil Bibby as the tape’s sole guest), Herbo is still poignant in the way he weaves affecting tales of hardship and internal conflicts. “Kobe's last breath right before my eyes, shit had me traumatized/I'm so sick and tired of being tired, I don't even exercise,” is a harrowing glimpse at the mental issues that plague many who’ve lost a loved one.

Strictly 4 My Fans plays like a premature victory lap; rather than rush a debut, it seems as if G Herbo is taking the time expand his fanbase while refining his skillset. "Gutta" is a great showcase of how the young rapper could bridge the gap between new and old as it sees him comfortably riding the more traditional, sample-based instrumental while rhyming “bodies drop here probably more than babies born a day,” with as much conviction as ever. “Pull Up,” is decidedly old school in its flavor as well and does a great job at showing off his long-dormant sensual (read: nasty as hell) side. On there, he shows control of his elastic voice in a manner previously unexplored, proving he’s yet to fully explore the range he possesses. In contrast to these two, “Run It Up,” is Chief Keef karaoke in the best way possible and sits comfortably as a standout on the other end of the emotional spectrum.  

But these fleeting moments of brilliance aren’t enough to sustain a somewhat jumbled presentation. There’s a back-and-forth between styles that continues throughout the project, making the transitions between his current sound and sounds of the past seem haphazard to an extent. At one point, Herbo rhymes “coppers had him” and “apprehended” by pronouncing the latter word like “opper-handed,” and, for a moment, he feels like the only voice in rap that matters. But before long, he’s trying his hand at a modern, auto-tune drenched ballad and the tape’s momentum comes to a screeching halt. “Control” (produced by Post Malone affiliate Charlie Handsome), sees Herbo falling flat for once as he croons about the pitfalls of fickle love. His attempt at keeping up with current trends feels more self-indulgent than it does necessary. Throughout the tape, Herb tries to maintain a hold on his original style while simultaneously teasing progress and ends up with a lukewarm mixture of the two. “Havin’ Shit” coast on a proven formula, whereas "Something" feels refreshingly new. A middle ground is eventually reached with the successful combination of storytelling and modern production found on “Eastside Story,” produced by Atlanta staple Southside. Regardless, even at just 38 mins, the tape drags due to these inconsistencies.

Strictly 4 My Fans sees Herb developing a triumphant and reflective point of view - one that’s admittedly muddled by the growing pains that accompany shedding an old and familiar style. It doesn't feel like he's directly in the trenches anymore but, rather, reporting on the plights of his city from a bird's-eye view. His artistic voice is changing and the results are often exciting. The Jay Z influenced “Outro” sees DJ L Beats and C-Sick making another appearance, this time with their production straying from the broodiness of the intro and leaning heavily into the inspiring sound Herbo seems intent on pursuing. Herb’s closing remarks express a desire for people to truly understand him and his vision: “I wish everybody brain operated the way mine do,” he sighs, dejected but not defeated. This project is a transition phase for the maturing rapper, who seems more ready now than ever before to deliver a stellar debut album.