It's been five years since an 18-year-old G Herbo snagged a coveted collaboration with Nicki Minaj on her song "Chiraq" and overnight became one of Chicago's most buzzed-about new MCs. "But honestly this is just the beginning of my journey," the 23-year-old rapper said when calling from his downtown home on a recent afternoon.
To hear him tell it, that teenage Herbo – the one known at the time as Lil Herb, and who made a near-instant splash on the rap scene alongside his childhood friend, Lil Bibby – had zero idea yet of what constituted the recipe for a successful career as a recording artist. Even more detrimental to him at the time, Herbo admitted, was that he still had a foot firmly planted in his now-former life as a street hustler. "I wasn't really trying to perfect my craft or even trying to get somewhere in life," Herbo said in reflection. "I solely thought I'd make it off having talent. And as anybody will tell you, talent is just one thing.
"I still thought I was gonna be able to be Herb, that buzzing kid who still gonna be able to come from the studio and go stand on 79th and Essex, where I grew up," he said continuing. "When I really started reaping the benefits is when I made that decision that I'm gonna put 100 percent of my focus into the music and working and zero percent into negative energy and the streets. Zero percent into anything that's not gonna get me to the next level."
For Herbo, who plays The Forge in Joliet on Friday, what that entails is doubling down on what first made him pop: hard-nosed, brutally honest tales of a life spent fighting to survive to the next day. "People love me 'cause they think they know me," Herbo says of his knack for crafting intoxicatingly blunt rhymes delivered with pungent clarity in his burly voice. His debut album, 2017's "Humble Beast" offered listeners a stark front-row seat to a life spent dodging bullets when not weighing the emotional tolls of the horrors he'd witnessed. So painfully aware was Herbo of his deadly surroundings that "people who really never met me already got their own interpretation of me through my music," he said. "I always try to give them the real."
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While the rapper admitted last year's more energetic and party-starting "Swervo" LP created with producer and 808 Mafia co-founder Southside was a left-turn for him as an artist ("It was me trying to challenge my inner-artist," he offered. "Show that I can make ya'll feel good on top of being able to make ya'll cry and channel your inner pain"), he's made the decision to return to his roots on two new projects: the recently released "Still Swervin" mixtape as well as his forthcoming third full-length album.
Part of his maturation process, Herbo added, was in learning how his own decisions affect those around him. "I was on some bull – – . I used to do everything (wrong) but I stopped doing that and got some money," he said. "And now I can take care of my mother. And now I can take care of my sister. I thought me being in the streets was going to help me do that but nope. The system is designed for us to fail. So let's stop letting them win, stop putting money in everybody else's pockets and get paid off us going to jail and let's go figure out how we gonna be able to control our life and dictate our life and make sure we never gotta suffer another day again."
Central to Herbo's new hands-on approach, he explained, is to make a more conscious effort to unify the Chicago hip-hop scene. "Back in 2013," he said, "when everybody was getting (record label) deals and the spotlight was on Chicago, we had all the opportunity in the world to capitalize on it." But Herbo says Chicago artists traditionally have faced off in a war of egos rather than supporting one another for greater success. To illustrate the point, "I just got a song with (Chief) Keef in 2018 and we been friends since forever," he explained. "I got him tattooed on me, bro! But right now we in a position to really grow Chicago," Herbo contended. "Chicago in a good position where we can unify."
Moving forward, "everything is super calculated for me, bro" Herbo said. "Honestly I'm just trying to capitalize and build other people up. I'm a firm believer that life is what you make it. I really believe if people had the mindset to go out and strive and have patience you can be whatever you want. 'Cause I know where I came from. I been broke so many times. I was supposed to be dead. I was supposed to be in jail. But I'm still here."