by Chris Randle
What’s a musician to do, now that “free” is not only a routine fact of cultural consumption but obnoxious tech-guru dogma too? You might try releasing your band’s next album online at a pay-what-thou-wilt price point, although that tactic has a high chance of failure if you’re not already famous. You could license and be sponsored. You should probably include digital download codes with your vinyl, nestling utility inside slabs of aura. Alternatively, you can bid to choke the insatiable maw: giving away so many songs, so much content, so much of yourself that the sheer size of your output attracts notoriety and obsession. The young rapper Lil B has achieved a strange, ultra-specific web renown with that marketing strategy, but he did so out of compulsion, not calculation. He’s one with his medium like James Woods in Videodrome.
I first stumbled across him a year or so ago at Cocaine Blunts, where blogger Noz has become a tireless though clear-sighted booster. In 2006, when he was 15, Lil B’s Berkeley rap group the Pack notched up a minor hit; their album later flopped and their label dropped them. Then the madness began. B, aka Brandon McCartney, created 100+ Myspace pages over a series of months (some of them “secrete,” like the Minus World), each featuring a handful of tracks and freestyles. His Youtube account is constantly updated with sort-of music videos, zero-budget clips he films around Berkeley.
B seems to spend more time tweeting than sleeping, perhaps because the former is a better outlet for his id. His fans, most of them young and fanatical, are encouraged to follow the Based Lifestyle – a philosophy stressing positivity and (relatively) clean living. Not yet an acolyte, I felt like Clement Attlee did about Christianity: “Believe in the ethics. Can’t accept the mumbo jumbo.”
The Based God’s discography already stretches well into the quadruple digits, with its own attendant tropes. He yammers about swag and sex a lot; the latter oscillates between the hilariously surreal (“I’m so wet that a pussy get mad at me”) and the unsettling (gynecological porn-talk rasps over a lo-fi footwork track). One of his maxims is “hoes on my dick cause I look like ________,” filled in with intentional absurdities: Mel Gibson, Aretha Franklin, Jesus.
The peacocking blowjob-related material might obscure how experimental B can be. For each of his stunt samples, like the X-men TV show, there are many more where he raps over New Age loops, ambient synths or Antony and the Johnsons. (He once struck up a Twitter conversation with me about Momus.) On a lot of the trademark “based freestyles” he barely bothers to rap, favouring spoken word, syntactical ad-libs and stream-of-consciousness rambling.
He slips in and out of personae with the same ease. On the infamous “Pretty Bitch,” Lil B goes from profane swagmaster to something far more protean: “I used to be a goon, now I’m a pretty bitch.” (He claims he’s finer than Nicki Minaj, too: debatable.) Elsewhere, the MC describes himself as a princess and “a faggot.” It’s not surprising that he’s been the subject of gay rumours, nor that his demurrals are so unbothered (albeit characteristically weird). Code-switching? Sure, and a genius at it, but that term feels clumsily archaic in this context. Lil B and his friend Soulja Boy are making a radical and overlooked break from the traditional hip-hop project of repping one’s hood. B is very, very Berkeley, of course, but only implicitly; his many selves live on the internet.
It’s easy to stalk someone online, and yet it’s not much harder to explore a new personality. B embodies this. He doesn’t even try to reconcile his contradictions; he gleefully heightens them. That’s one explanation for his rabid fanbase – I know it’s why I’m fascinated by the guy – but aside from the music, the Based Lifestyle also has its perks. As Noz wrote, “I can think of worse things for kids to fall into than a cult dedicated to positivity and aggressive-but-safe sex.”
Creativity, too: just click on a #based hashtag to see the results. There is an entire Tumblr site devoted to “cooking,” the MC’s new dance fad/culinary education program. His mania is viral. A few months ago, when I was talking to a friend and fellow obsessive on Gchat, she suggested that I make a Lil B mix so we could try having sex to it. We both soon realized this was ridiculous, but I think he would still appreciate the sentiment.
My favourite Lil B song is “The Age of Information.” It’s kind of like “Sign O’ the Times” if Prince had been a teenager who smoked weed every single day. Atop a dreamy, watery beat, B stammers out generational anxiety: “I’m on computers, profusely, searching on the internet for answers (give it to me).” I have a couple of years on him, but I can hardly remember what life was like before the internet. By high school I was already writing myself onto message boards and keeping my status updated, which might be ideal preparation for high school. And yet, I was unnerved to find myself agreeing with the critic Tom Ewing when he argued that “it’s really only a matter of time before some kind of bluetoothy broadcast-what-yr-consuming tool becomes popular.”
Lil B, who knows whereof he mumbles here, is one dubious hippie: “This age of information, all we do is judge…Everything that we watch, all we do is classify people.” The thrill of being fluid and mercurial demands less effort than ever now, but it’s still mortifying when a stranger watches you change.