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Chicago Rapper G Herbo Pivots To Vulnerability — And Scores A Hit

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Another story now - a musician with nearly 10 years in the business finally made it onto the Billboard Hot 100 last month, and he did it with a song on which four of the most popular contemporary rappers plainly discuss their experiences with post-traumatic stress disorder. Frannie Kelley spoke with G Herbo about his new album "PTSD" and why it's so necessary.

FRANNIE KELLEY, BYLINE: For all of the criticisms of rap music for glorifying violence or hyper-masculine posturing, every generation, every scene has produced a moment that strips away the armor. And I'm not talking about underground sleeper hits.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I SEEN A MAN DIE")

SCARFACE: (Rapping) I watch him die, and when he dies, he let us celebrate. You took his life, but your memory you'll never take. You'll be headed to another place, and the life you used to live will reflect in your mother's face.

KELLEY: Scarface more than 25 years ago cracked the Top 40 with that one.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLIPPIN'")

DMX: (Rapping) Three years later, showing signs of stress - didn't keep my hair cut or give a - come on - about how I dressed. I'm possessed by the darker side, living the cruddy life.

KELLEY: And this is from a No. 1 album DMX released a few years later. And yet it still feels notable, even laudable, when a street-hardened 20-something confesses that he, too, cries.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GANGSTA'S CRY")

G HERBO: (Rapping) I poured up some more so I could stop crying. Relapsed after quitting, like, my second time, but I know I just want to numb the pain that's inside. I know I just want to clear the rage in my mind. My younger days - will I still feel the same all the time? Growing, Granny used to yell my name all the time like the same if I'm on the stage yelling lines. And I might surprise you, but I never tell you lies. if you knew what I knew, just be thankful you alive.

KELLEY: This is G Herbo, an artist from Chicago.

G HERBO: You gotta get that out. It's human. You got to get it out. And I think that record is me telling people, it's OK to get it out, because they look at me like, oh, Herb is tough. He a gangsta. He this. You know what I'm saying? But I'm human. I cry, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GANGSTA'S CRY")

G HERBO: (Rapping) Have you ever seen a gangsta cry? It ain't nothing wrong with seeing gangstas cry. It ain't nothing wrong with seeing gangstas cry.

KELLEY: Herbo's new album contains more than one mask drop. Its animating emotion is empathy for the young men and women surviving terror and violence of those sections of Chicago with very few options.

G HERBO: You can't make someone get off the corner. You don't have a alternative for them. This is how they feed their family. You don't have a alternative for them when they get off of that corner. What are they going to do - let the economy eat them up? You know what I'm saying? You wouldn't do it. No one would do it.

KELLEY: Herbo did get off the corner, but what he saw there haunts him.

G HERBO: I talked to my therapist before, and I told her some of the stuff that I've been through. And she said she'd never even heard of it or seen it besides watching a movie. And it's normal, a regular Tuesday for us. So drill music was really speaking our truth.

KELLEY: Drill is the style of music that Herbo came up in. It originated in Chicago and has been praised for its lack of affect as often as it's been excoriated for its cold-blooded depictions of violence. This is Herbo in 2012.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KILL S***")

G HERBO: (Rapping) I never run cause I stay to fight. I'll cook a n**** like steak and rice. And it's hella real in the battlefield. Gangbang got to pay the price.

KELLEY: That song took off. It caught the ear of the two businessmen who became his managers and that of Nicki Minaj, who flew Herbo out to repurpose his opening bars for the hook up her song "Chiraq." As Herbo's star rose through albums and mixtapes and freestyles gone viral, so did drill's. There are currently iterations of the genre coming out of both Brooklyn and the U.K. But drill has never managed to outrun its critics. For them, Herbo has words.

G HERBO: If you see kids living like this, obviously, there's something wrong. Something's going on. You judging it, but you need to be helping us. Why are we 16, 17 years old, living life like this? Where are the adults? Who's there to help us? That's what you need to look at. It's not about, oh, what we're doing is wrong. Of course what we're doing is wrong. We don't know it's wrong because it's our life.

KELLEY: On his new album, Herbo doesn't shirk from describing his lived experience. It's just that his life now includes a useful diagnosis, mentors and a sense that his story has real value. Herbo says it's important for him to sometimes express that without the pageantry of music.

G HERBO: Because when it's coming out of my mouth and it's not on an instrumental, it's a totally different feel.

KELLEY: He's done some speaking at the Cook County Juvenile Center.

G HERBO: It's surreal. It's weird going there because I used to get arrested and go to court there. And so I'm able to relate to those kids.

KELLEY: Herbo's had to go to court as an adult as well, including for a domestic violence misdemeanor. He addresses that incident on his album, and I asked him if he's also brought it up with the kids at the juvenile center.

G HERBO: Yeah, yeah. It's just about choices, the decisions you make. And a lot of times, I am hurt. You know, a lot of times, I am frustrated. But I feel this way for a reason, so I can't fight that. You know what I'm saying?

KELLEY: You mean, like, go through it...

G HERBO: Yeah.

KELLEY: ...Instead of avoid it.

G HERBO: I'll go through it on my own. Exactly. I'll face my fears because I think that is how you clash. That is how you end up hurting someone or putting your hands on a woman when you try to run from that. I think I learned how to face my fears as a man, and that's what helps me maneuver.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "FEELINGS")

G HERBO: (Rapping) I don't never make excuses for myself, but how I came up was kind of hard. I was having battle scars. And I'm never speaking on the [expletive] I did because when you bite, you don't got to bark. These the years now when he young, but my jit (ph) watching. Just 'cause we fell out of love, that ain't his problem. Every kid want a mommy and a poppy, but how we going to co-parent when it's sloppy?

KELLEY: G Herbo's soul-baring on "PTSD" means his maneuvers are available to everybody who hears it. But he's right. What he's got to say does land differently when he just says it.

G HERBO: You don't have it figured out at 18, 15. You don't have it figured out at 25.

KELLEY: Try 35.

G HERBO: Thirty-five, you don't have it figured out, absolutely. So bet on yourself.

KELLEY: For NPR News, I'm Frannie Kelley.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PTSD")

JUICE WRLD: (Singing) I turn the news on when I smell death in the air. I prove you wrong. I made it out of here. I don't belong. I see my past everywhere. Don't stand too close to me - eternal PTSD. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Hey, thanks for reading.
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