This week, I got to find out exactly how far ahead of the mainstream I can possibly be at my luckiest. My brother told me about the Berkeley-based rapper Lil B within the last month, and now he’s in The New York Times and The Village Voice. My little brother is six months ahead of the Times, which knocks me down to only a couple weeks of insider self-satisfied bullshit. Even still, the bigger Lil B blows up, the better for our understandings of each other and ourselves.
Lil B the Based God, as he’s affectionately known, was a member of The Pack, a Bay Area rap group made up of young teens. If you’re not from The Bay, you might still have heard their catchy “Got my vans on/but they look like sneakers;” if you’re from The Bay, you definitely heard it. Since then, Lil B has published a book and recorded prolifically, but instead of the catchy pop-rap of his youth, he now records largely stream-of-consciousness word associations over haunting beats. He has invented his own world centered largely around the idea of being “based,” which means something like “inventing and living in one’s own world.” He has his own dance, “cooking”, – more Bobby Flay than Raekwon – which looks like it’s a made-up move from a parody movie. Instead it’s a made-up move from reality. This is the excellence of Lil B the Based God.
I think it’s important that Lil B’s medium of choice is the YouTube video. He doesn’t just use YouTube or Twitter, he has built his music ground-up for the formats. Here’s what he told Complex magazine,
Complex: Why do you take that approach? Most of your songs aren’t available for download. There’s a song here, a song there. You have a random 250-song mixtape. It’s chaotic and there’s no order to it.
Lil B: [Laughs.] Right. I look at it like, the people that really love me will find me, you just gotta stay up-to-date with me. I’m gonna put it out there for you. And I’m working on stuff that’s gonna be easier for the masses to get. I’m working hard on a lot of good music. A lot of mainstream quality stuff, because that’s what I do. I make mainstream hits. I’m a writer and I just make hit songs. I can’t stop. I make controversy and that’s just me because that’s the kind of person I am.
The controversy he’s talking about comes from songs like his based freestyle “Im a fag Im a lesbian.” He wears tight pink and purple v-necks and consistently refers to himself as a “pretty bitch.” Lil B says he’s not gay (“Im a lesbian/I only fuck bitches”) but he’s not offended at the implications. So what the hell does it mean for an ostensibly straight rapper to have a room full of fans yelling “Im a pretty bitch?”
Lil B made his New York media debut after selling out his first show in the Big Apple. This video of the concert up at the Village Voice site proves that these were hard-core fans who were singing along with every verbal twist and turn. The film has the bizarre feel of an Allen Ginsburg B.E.T. special, with chants of “swag” instead of “om.” At first I thought Lil B was engaged in some giant pastiche, taking mainstream rap to its logical subtextual end. But after listening to his music, watching his videos and reading his Tweets (he really likes Twitter), I’m convinced something more is going on.
In Italian thinker Franco Berardi’s (otherwise known as Bifo) article “Schizo-Economy” (also available in the “readings” section), he theorizes that media environment in which we live has altered our body-minds:
“The digital nervous system progressively incorporates itself into the organic nervous system, the circuit of human communication, recodifying it in accordance with its operational parameters and specific velocity. But in order for this transformation to take place, the body-mind [corpo-mente] must undergo an infernal mutation, one we are now seeing unfold in world history. To understand and analyze this process, neither the conceptual instruments of political economy nor those of technological analysis are sufficient. The production process is becoming semiotic; the formation of the digital nervous system involves and enervates the mind, the social psyche, desires and hopes, fears and the imagination. It follows that if we want to analyze these productive transformations, we must concern ourselves with semiotic production, with linguistic and cognitive mutation.”
Certainly Lil B is concerned with semiotic production as well as linguistic and cognitive mutation, but I’m not sure his task is analysis. He is engaged in unrestrained expression of what Bifo calls the “infosphere” – “that immaterial region where semiotic fluxes interact with the reception antennae of the minds scattered across the planet.” Based God is a valve that releases undigested semiotic flows dislodged largely from context. If you hear or say “You’re a fag/I’m a pimp” enough times, eventually you’ll end up thinking the phrase “I’m a fag” or “I’m a pretty bitch.” Lil B says all of it and more, everything that comes into not only his mind, but the social mind. Bifo points to attention disorders and their management tactics as products of the infosphere, but might there be another way of dealing with the schizo-genic media environment?
If I were to try to capture the totality of contemporary late-capitalist American culture in one phrase, I’m not sure I could do better than Lil B’s line “Hoes on my dick cuz I look like Miley Cyrus.” As Deleuze and Guattari wrote in Anti-Oedipus, “Better a schizophrenic on a walk than a neurotic on a couch.” Lil B is perhaps the schizoid answer to an artist like Eminem, whose maternally fixed rhymes I always imagine flowing unimpeded from an analyst’s couch. Instead of fleeing from the multiplicity of imposed subjectivities and/or/by projecting them onto others, Lil B becomes a fag, a dyke, the president, a bitch, Jesus.
There’s a point in David Lipsky’s account of his trip covering David Foster Wallace for Rolling Stone, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, where Wallace questions whether realist narratives can even come close to describing contemporary American life due to the changes the media environment Bifo describes. Lipsky argues for Tolstoy’s enduring realism, and Wallace’s response gets close to describing Bifo’s idea of corpo-mente mutation, “Yeah, but life now is completely different than the way it was then. Does your life approach anything like a linear narrative? I’m talking about the way it feels, how our nervous system feels.” In rap, the realist narratives that groups like N.W.A. used to tell the mostly untold stories of the Reagan-era American ghettos no longer seem capable of describing contemporary ife. Whether it’s Kid Cudi’s surreal dreamscapes, Lil Wayne’s ADD linguistic acrobatics or undigested product promotion from the Billboard flavor of the month, post-realist rap dominates the airwaves. Lil B goes a step further by plunging into the infosphere and rolling around, semiotic fragments sticking to his clothes like burs.
I don’t think Lil B will ever receive as much popular or theoretical attention as say Lady Gaga, but I think his work is far more interesting. There, I said it. The best way to see Lil B’s work is on YouTube, but if you want .mp3s, check out Based Blunts, a collection of his based freestyles. The Britney Spears sample in “Toxic Girls” is the new soundtrack to my nightmares. Thank you Based God.