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Twenty-one-year-old Brandon McCartney stands on stage at New York's Highline Ballroom in a tighter-than-skin-tight v-neck T-shirt. Below him, a sold out crowd split roughly down the middle along multiple demographic lines - street fashionable kids of all races stand next to aging bespectacled bearded types — thunder a chant of "Ellen / Degeneres / Ellen / Degeneres!" in deadpan unison. Some fans are adorned in chef's caps and wave spatulas in the air. Others kiss the rapper's hand in reverence. Many are simply there to witness the spectacle.
Lil B regularly interrupts the performance to pass his mic to the crowd, who jokingly promise their loved ones as sexual sacrifices. He "knights" them in return. He brags about wearing the same pants everyday. He signs iPhones. He plays the mic across his abdomen like it's a jugband washboard and then consoles his less fit followers: "It's okay if you don't have abs." He also raps a little, but not as much or as loudly as the kids in the crowd do. Equal parts musical performance, surrealist comedy act, motivational speech, celebrity meet-and-greet and dance party — this is the warped reality of Lil B, a.k.a. The Based God, hip-hop's most eccentric, vulgar, prolific, endearing and divisive new artist.
Since the dissolution of his almost-famous high school group The Pack, the still-unsigned Berkeley, Calif. rapper has released roughly 3,000 songs for free on the Internet in the past three years. On them he rhymes loosely, in a decidedly Lil Wayne-inspired croak. His themes shift rapidly between sexual perversity, new age mysticism and — most frequently — extreme absurdity.
He raps about cat care and back pain. He raps about black liberation and becoming a deity. He jokes about being a nerd. He laments materialism and claims to be an incredibly wealthy ladies man in the same breath. From a distance it would be easy to mistake him for an eccentric hiccup in the long line of in-the-moment pop rappers, but further inspection reveals a considerably more complex artist, one whose body of work look less like a musical catalog than a broad conceptual cross-media art project, or perhaps a relentless soundtrack to one young man's compulsive disorder.
"What I rap for? Everything / I want bling bling and world peace."
Lil B's sonic scope is nearly as wide as his topical domain, drawing from an influence and sample pool where gangsta rapper du jour Waka Flocka Flame and true school New York emcees like AZ mingle with blind opera singer Andrea Bocelli and indie favorite Ariel Pink. His finest work has an ethereal and angelic quality indebted to British electronica songstress Imogen Heap. On "I'm God" he floats through the track and challenges nature itself to a rap battle. "Cooking Dance," a collaboration with fellow internet-bred rapper Soulja Boy, might be the first truly psychedelic instructional dance rap song.
By technical hip-hop standards some of Lil B's rapping is close to horrible, sloppy and off beat or thematically incoherent. It's a very punk rock approach, bypassing technical proficiency entirely in favor of getting an idea or emotion to tape in the fastest way possible. The method has its roots in the Based Freestyle, a formless and stream of conscious style of spoken word rapping that B invented around 2008.
"Based," at large, is Lil B's vaguely defined and slightly cultish ideology. He explains: "Being based means [being] positive, doing what you want to do, not caring and just being yourself." You know, everything.
Lil B filled more than a hundred Myspace pages with these freestyles, then abandoned them completely. Still, their influence remains. "That was all unconscious groundwork for why I'm here today," he says with a degree of awe. "Thank God for the Based Freestyles."
Unsurprisingly, his work has been met with an intensely mixed response. Critics seem intrigued by Lil B but ultimately turned off or confused by him. An ambivalent review in The New York Times called his a show "fantastic and bizarre, but at least humane" and dismissed his output as "a thematically thin cesspool." When MTV's The Vice Guide To Everything ran a segment on Lil B the host shrugged him off in the kindest way possible: "I'm pretty sure Based music is just an excuse to be professionally weird, but it's a super endearing brand of weird." Civilian critics tend to be less, well, civil. When rumor of a planned collaboration between Lil B and the well-regarded "conscious" rapper Lupe Fiasco broke, a concerned fan confronted him at a Q&A session: "I just want to know why you decided to collaborate with Lil B, who I feel is a rapper that is ruining the future of hip-hop."
For his part, Lil B seems to revel in the hatred. "I decided to make one of the most controversial songs that I could," he told me when he first declared himself God two years ago. "I want to get under people's skin." Trafficking in shock value is certainly not new terrain for hip-hop — rappers from NWA to Eminem made their trade in alarming concerned parent groups and Tipper Gore types — but Lil B might be the first to purposely offend people within the hip-hop cohort.
He gleefully tears down the remaining tenets of hip-hop conservatism, illuminating the growing generation gap in a genre that is approaching its fourth decade of existence. Many of Lil B's listeners are the children of the children who grew up on NWA's rebellion, so they invert it. This new generation wears obtrusively skinny pants as a logical counterpoint to their parent's oversized baggy jeans. On record, Lil B proudly calls himself "a princess" and "a f*****" as a flip side to the hyper-masculinity and lingering homophobia of the past generation.
In real life Lil B firmly identifies as both proudly heterosexual and non-specifically religious. In fact, the human Brandon McCartney is a far cry from the Lil B of Youtube fame and Internet flame wars. Certainly the eccentricity remains, but the brash egoist and cult leader tendencies only occasionally come out. For the most part he's playful but humble, quietly respectful and charmingly childlike. He rants about fears of death and spiders and turns bashful when you ask him about women.
When I first visited him at his mother's house in the summer of 2009, he had to postpone a bedroom recording session after she came home unexpectedly because he didn't want to curse while she was in the house. The following summer he sold out his first New York concert. We had made plans to meet up after the show but they fell through in the chaos of a couple hundred kids thanking the Based God. Instead we met for breakfast the next morning, where I inquired about the previous night's activities. "Bruh, it was insane," he gushed. "We went to a magic show!" He then proceeded to giddily discuss the prospect of implementing magic tricks during his own performances.
Though that sweetness colors much of Lil B's output and no doubt accounts for his resonance with fans, his unfiltered adolescent mind comes with a degree of collateral damage. Aggressively vulgar song titles like "Violate That Bitch" and "Suck My Dick Hoe" speak for themselves, and these are the records that have led detractors to peg him as an ignorant and destructive force to his genre. They've also grown to become his most popular songs. There's a deadened and mechanical coldness to Lil B when he's in this mode. His usually playful croak turns threatening and his rhymes resemble a Tourette's outburst. A favored motif involves bragging about how his resemblance to various celebrities, both fictional and non-fictional, inspires women to perform sexual favors. This could actually resemble a typical rap trope if his points of comparison weren't so incredibly bizarre: Jesus, JK Rowling, Hannah Montana, Frasier, Mel Gibson, John Stockton (Lil B bears little likeness to any of these people).
Recently he's abbreviated the conceit; he no longer just looks like the celebrities, he becomes them. Sort of. Songs like "Ellen Degeneres," "Bitch I'm Bill Clinton," and "I'm Miley Cyrus" mostly serve as absurdist experiments to see how catchy these names sound when they're repeated. Though he'd never admit it, this side of his catalog occasionally feels like a satirical roast of rapper cliches. Lil B's catalog is a labyrinth of inside jokes wrapped inside genuinely catchy and affecting songs where even its willing participants aren't entirely sure of the borders. The lines are further muddled by his insistence that his every action, no matter how offensive, is a step towards the greater goal of positivity.
"I'm a funny guy. I want people to laugh," he says. "I laugh at myself, I make fun of myself. But at the end of the day everything that I say has a message in it."
Often the medium - the Internet - seems like a more immediate focus for Lil B than the message. It's his principle canvas and his primary distraction. Clearly suffering from some degree of attention deficit, even the slightest lull in a conversation can draw him back to the glow of his MacBook, where he'll resume tweeting feverishly or answering messages from fans. His track "Age Of Information" addresses the problem: "My desktop is made to sedate me." It's an addiction he's come to accept, strangely above even real life rap stardom. "I have my fantasy world where all the girls love me," he admits in conversation. "But truth be told, I'm at the computer. The computer's my girlfriend."
For entertainers before him, the Internet merely provided a distribution method or a promotional tool. For Lil B, it's home. His musical output reflects the relentless pace of a Twitter feed, the oversharing of Facebook, the lawless and recursive humor of 4chan memes, the vapid celebrity obsession of Perez Hilton.
The Based oeuvre is now sprawling and offers many interesting case studies in how and why trends bounce around the internet and then feather into the real world: The song "Thank You Based God" sparked a running Tumblr and message board meme in which photos of everyone from Barack Obama to Anna Karina crying tears of joy are photoshopped with the phrase on top. Fans now feverishly recite the phrase back to him at concerts. His ubiquitous adlibs of "Wooh!" and "Swag!" have been adopted as conversational expressions by fans and other rappers. One of Lil B's most popular YouTube clips is an instructional clip for his "Cooking Dance," an arms-only routine that entails pantomiming chef motions. Thousands of fans responded by uploading their own very creative clips.
Lil B extends the exchange with personal touch, hitting the comments to anoint the best dancers as "Master Chefs". The dance's popularity has surged since, with more than one NFL receiver adopting it as an end zone celebration. Lil B has even published a self-help book, Takin' Over By Imposing The Positive!, sloppily culled from an unedited string of text messages and emails with little editorial concern. His Twitter bio boasts "Mogul, First Rapper Ever To Write And Publish A Book at 19." His aim is scattered but his intentions are pure.
In a 1994 Spin magazine column, critic Danyel Smith summed up Tupac Shakur's philosophy as such: "He feels his mania is what we all have and deny, that insanity is a rational adjustment to an insane world." Lil B roughly updates this thesis for the web era. His catalog and persona suggest that the simple act of turning on a computer is an inherent concession to madness. And, like Tupac, Lil B has a knack for extracting the beauty from that madness. Some of his more loyal acolytes have already anointed him the Tupac of their generation.
The comparison would undoubtedly be considered sacrilege by old guard hip-hop heads, and the more alienating aspects of Lil B's music will likely prevent him from ever reaching Tupac's level of popular acceptance. But the two share a certain kinetic ricochet between hero and villain, between life and performance. Both look the black male stereotype squarely in the face and embrace it in the most extreme way possible, only to immediately counter it by snapping their character right back to its antithesis. To some this is hypocrisy; to Tupac it was a brutal truth. To Lil B it's just one small fragment of his everything.