The clown prince of hip hop comes to town
by Gordon Campbell
Lil B could either be a train wreck or a triumph when he plays in Wellington this month. (The audience chemistry in New Zealand is going to be a complete unknown.) There’s also the setlist question. There is a heck of a lot of Lil B music, and some options are better than others. Counting merely from 2010 onwards, Lil B had issued by last count, about seven albums and forty seven full length mixtapes, one of which contains 676 tracks. Heroically, every single track on that particular mixtape was reviewed by this trio, working on it in shifts.
Positivity may be his message to the people, but Lil B attracts more than his share of haters. As the New Yorker said this time last year in a snarky piece headlined “The Dumb Brilliance of Lil B”
He is twenty-two years old and claims to have released “over two thousand songs,” which is plausible, depending on what the definition of “song” is.
One of his songs is called “I’m Miley Cyrus,” and it goes like this: “I’m Miley Cyrus / I’m Miley Cyrus / Cyrus / Cyrus / I’m Miley Cyrus.” Another song, called “Mel Gibson,” goes like this: “I look like Mel Gibson / I’m Mel Gibson… Oh my god, I’m Mel Gibson.” He has a song called “Ellen DeGeneres,” which goes like this: “Ellen DeGeneres / Ellen DeGeneres / Ellen DeGeneres / Ellen DeGeneres.” There is one called “Justin Bieber,” one called “Paris Hilton,” one called “Bill Clinton,” and one called “Dr. Phil,” which barely mentions Dr. Phil. In a 2011 video interview, the Vice reporter Ryan Duffy asked, with regard to this phylum of Lil B’s music, “What the fuck is that about?” “It’s just some celebrities that I just think are funny,” Lil B responded. By the end of the interview, Lil B had come up with a new song. It went like this: “I’m Ryan Duffy / I’m Ryan Duffy.”
That is pretty funny. But if Lil B was merely a dumb/smart cartoon figure –as some people assumed initially say, about the Ramones – then life would be simple. Yet in his case, the brilliance is just as genuine, and it doesn’t consist only in the cunning marketing of throwaway stupidity as post-performance conceptual art. Personally, I have more trouble with the minstrel aspect of Lil B’s fan base, which includes a lot of (white) frat boys laughing at the crazy, gold-toothed black guy, whatever he’s doing.
For the meta-textual reasons though, it does seem a tad foolhardy to try to create a “Best” list.. As the Net evidence shows, those Lil B lists never remotely agree with each other and that’s not simply down to matters of taste. It is also because the jokier stuff is as deserving of inclusion as the drugged out stuff, and that’s not forgetting the stuff that exhibits what we normally think of as “ quality” – such as flow, good beats, lyric content and ingenuity etc. Not to mention hip hop’s default setting of misogyny, which is also rife in the Lil B canon. So, by definition…any “best” of Lil B has to include the “worst” of Lil B if only because for many people, the worst stuff is the best stuff. That’s a defensible position, too. I mean, given that Van Morrison’s “Moondance” is a really godawful song, why shouldn’t Lil B underline that by using it as a platform to rap about Tupac?
Does that redeem “Moondance”? Partly. That’s an achievement. Put that one on the list.
The New Yorker guy got particularly teed off about this endless to and fro between the smarts and the stupidity :
Lil B is a fount of ignorant shit. He comes from the Berkeley projects and is a product of Northern California hyphy culture, in which “dumb” is a form of high praise; and he produces so much shit, most of it so transcendently dumb, that it has come to seem like a form of culture jamming, as if his entire output were sandwiched between scare quotes. (Regarding the most repugnant parts of his persona, particularly the misogyny, one can only hope this is the case.) Pop culture is obviously superficial; rather than telling us so, Lil B performs superficiality. His songs about celebrities are, like Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe prints, a comment on the mechanization of celebrity. Unlike Drake and Madonna, whose self-pitying meditations on fame often sound like humblebrags, Lil B makes himself impossible to take seriously. Most rappers claim to be “real”; Lil B claims to be Ellen DeGeneres.
At which point, the New Yorker guy probably needs to take a stress pill, lie down and relax. Because Lil B can also be a fount of conscious brilliance. Plus, he’s likeable. In this interview for instance, he comes across as a nice guy who likes Antony and the Johnsons. He also swears absolute fidelity to the same old beat-up pair of priceless shoes – “They’re worth $42,000 !” At least, until he makes his first million dollars. So here’s a shot at making a Lil B tracklist :
1. “Camp 22s” “Vans” Oh, the humanity, Oh the stupidity. All the usual ingredients (including casual misogyny) are on display in this high energy stepper, as the whomping “Ass/ass/ass/ass/ass” refrain runs headlong into declarations of prowess. “Vans” is the track that started it all, back when he was a teenage rapper with The Pack. On it, he celebrates his righteous shoes over the same ”Under Pressure” hook that Vanilla Ice rode to one hit wonder status.
2. “I Still Can’t Sleep” “Hipster Girls” The two sides of the coin. The stuff in “I Still Can\t Sleep” about dying alone seems genuine, even though the track ends amidsr a welter of heartfelt feelings and a self-promotional shout out for his next mixtape. No ambivalence with “Hipster Girls” …which is satirically on target right from its opening line : “ Omigod its Lil B/I’m at an underground party in New York…” Hipster girls, shake your ass.“ You look like you’re a hipster / Omigod, do you have a sister?”
3.“ I Hate Myself” “ B.O.R. (Birth of Rap)” Just when Lil B seems to be entirely about the jokes, there’s stuff like this. About looking in the mirror and feeling bad about yourself and the world. “For real man, its been in my heart a long time…being the black comedian, makes you wonder why…” And so on :
My lifetime came from struggle
All I’ve seen is what I follow
My skin color, automatic transaction
I’m already classified, no second chance
Taught to feel nappy hair, little grade…
Little beard, black hoodie, and I’m all good
People judge before they even know me
Stare at me, don’t know I’m lonely
Outside’s from these stares from police….
I gotta go to the hood, all I see is
Divided, the freshest schizophrenics
Men pimping women, people losing vision
Given choices before she started living
I hate myself
I see myself in the mirror, but I don’t see nothing
If you understand what I’m seeing please tell me something
When you black, the media make you wonder why
I just need my history, because I hate myself
Yeah, its partly cliche, partly to the point, and partly over a Goo Goo Dolls sample. “ I Hate Myself” is from his 2011 album I’m Gay which the subtitle “I’m Happy” makes clear is not about that kind of gay, but he’s willing to embrace any confusion. More of the same applies to the “B.O.R. (Birth Of Rap”) track from 2009, by the-then 20 year old Lil B. Again, it is pretty endearing how it sets up his ultimate rejection of negativity :
Now it’s ’09 and I’m runnin with the Based God
Fire in my eyes, mix my soul with the napalm
Mix and master, all I need is dro and one mic
One pad, one pen, iPod, dim lights
Feelin’ like a plane when it’s up and it’s in flight
Dressing everyday like I’m dead with the pinstripe…
And worse. Here’s B with a bad case of mixed up confusion, headed down some wrong roads, for sure ! As in :
Everytime I see a rapper, I think that I’m a get him
In the booth or in the streets, I’m known to tear and rip ’em
15 and 16, eyes breaking down the system
Nobody can tell me nothing, I was livin off my system
Head fucked up, I thought it would be cool to go to prison
Watching Hot Boyz on BET, getting all these women
So I got my gold grill because I’m thugged out with ’em…
But friends, by the time B reached the age of 20, things had started to look a bit different :
I can listen to the hate and put the volume on mute
So the only thing I hear is the horses in the coupe…
Like Gucci Mane said, it’s [a] rich nigga clique…
Mirror mirror on the wall, shit, I’m askin who the man is
Lil B for Lil Boss I’m prayin to my canvas
I deserve the crown because I’m speakin for the masses…
Listening to the hate, but putting the volume on mute? That’s pretty cool.
4. “Cooking Dance” “Exhibit 6” “ Cooking Dance” didn’t catch on to ‘Harlem Shake’ proportions, but once heard, never forgotten. And no, the title isn’t a drug reference, not in any Breaking Bad sense of cooking, anyway. Soulja Boy does sterling work here in the kitchen, too. On a more serious note, “Exhibit 6” works as one of those heartfelt confessional tracks that have been common in rap ever since Tupac first praised his mama, or since Big K.R.I.T got personal on a track like “The Vent.” Here, Lil B seems to be engaged in a half-assed undermining of that whole subgenre of rap pathos. “I’m real like David Blaine” [ie, I’m a real illusionist] ”I’m not a rap artist, this is spoken word..” Right. Nothing is quite what it seems.
5. “Cold War” “ObamaBased God” “Cold War” rides Janelle Monae’s already classic hook “This is a Cold War/Do you know what you’re fighting for ? and the track is strong enough in its own right, even without B bringing the cold cemetery landscape to bear in the video. As for “ObamaBased God”… the track is just as irritating as the President, and his whole supercalifragilistic time in the White House. Favourite line : |”I’m like a rare painting/You very rarely see me..”
6. “I’m God” “NYU lecture Pt 2 excerpt” “I’m God” has the advantage of being produced by Clams Casino, whose very fine instrumental version is downloadable for free here.
To finish up, I’ve included an excerpt from the 59 minute lecture Lil B gave last year at New York University. The segment starts at about the point where he suggests that maybe there’d be more chance for world peace if we all remembered to look at each other, and see only the baby mammals that we all were, once. Because its all about the seeing, and respecting. And at the same time…look out for the ant colonies, peoples. Because they’re a community too, right? They’ve got goals. See you at the show.
Lil B is playing the Bodega in Wellington on June 12.