Life After Lil B
The Based God created modern rap in his own image
Listen to hip hop carefully in 2017 and you’ll start to realize how many lines lead back to Lil B. He has arguably become the most influential rapper of the past decade, even if the primary knock on him is that he can’t rap. Not that he ever really made a point of saying that he could in the first place.
Over the course of nearly ten years, the Berkeley, California, artist born Brandon McCartney has seen his BasedWorld values—that were once considered radical—turn into widely accepted ideas. It’s because of the Based God that rappers don’t have to be lyrical miracles anymore. Aspiring MCs don’t need to be able to spit a hot 16 at a moment’s notice. Rhymes don’t have to rhyme. It’s because of the Based God that it’s okay if your music has shitty fidelity as long as it has a vibe. Hyper-masculinity is not popping, image-wise. And it matters less and less every day if old brain gatekeepers cosign your wave. Rap in 2017 is conceptual, artistic and uncompromising. Thank you Based God.
In the midst of his championship run from 2009 to 2012, Lil B released I’m Gay (I’m Happy), which celebrates its sixth anniversary today. I’m Gay was his last official album and shortly thereafter, the once prolific creator began to slow his pace. The gaps between his mixtapes widened, the last one arriving in December of 2015. This past February, Lil B began promising on social media that he’d release his Black Ken mixtape soon, but no one seems to know exactly when it will arrive.
Yet despite this absence of new material, Lil B’s influence may actually be at its peak. Drake proudly proclaims, “I’m just based” on the new Metro Boomin song, “No Complaints.” A$AP Rocky and Post Malone can be heard on the radio appropriating the based aesthetic. The whole SoundCloud underground that’s invigorating the game right now is composed of Lil B’s stylistic children.
Simultaneously, Lil B currently runs the risk of going down as a jokey footnote instead of a true visionary. Cursing Kevin Durant and then cursing James Harden and then lifting the curse off of Durant in time for the Warriors to win the championship may build his god myth and get him covered by sports media, but that feat pales in comparison to how he forced the underground into the mainstream, while making room for humanity in the process.
Enduring the pressures of disrupting rap, Lil B went through a bunch of Soulja Boy underlings adding “God” to their name, which he seemed to feel multiple ways about. Even Drake became the 6 God—probably not out of nowhere. But while Drake gives Lil B props, other artists don’t.
“[Ugly God] got famous for his meme shit. There’s no denying he took the rap style of the Based God,” says Keyboard Kid, a producer, rapper and BasedWorld architect. “And his name? What other rapper’s got that in his name? But he denies it, like, ‘I’m not Lil B.’ Well, you sound just like him. You got the whole ‘Oh, I’m gonna rap about how small my dick is’ swag. Lil B been did that. ‘My nuts are like raisins.’ We can go quote for quote. Coincidentally you’re doing this shit? You just thought of it?”
Sometimes we don’t know where our influences come from. Noisy new rappers like XXXTentacion, Lil Pump and Smokepurpp have been building on Lil B’s punk rock groundwork out in Florida, and while some would have you believe that their blown-out bass and everything-clipping mixes are brand new, they’re clearly descended from older Sunshine State crews like Raider Klan and especially Metro Zu. And those earlier crews took a lot from Lil B’s aesthetic, too.
While Lil B started making destroyed-sounding music years ago, what’s new now is that people don’t say “that’s not music” anymore. In 2010, Lil B songs like “Like a Martian” and “Violate that Bitch” were deemed the results of a mistake, a manifestation of incompetence. But Lil B’s crunchiness was really the product of doing art by any means necessary. For his disciples, it’s a chosen style, and there’s a difference.
“It was a real, authentic thing of Lil B doing it himself and not knowing technically what he’s doing,” explains Clams Casino, the other central producer of BasedWorld. “You can listen to the ‘Martian’ beat on YouTube and it doesn’t sound like [Lil B’s version]. It’s clean. It just sounds like that because B turned it all the way up. That’s what it came out like, what influenced kids, and what they connected to. You can hear that directly now.”
The SoundCloud stars over in California are also in Lil B’s lane, or at least the off-ramp of his freeway. Acts like Lil Tracy, Lil Peep and the whole Gothboiclique have a distinctly Lil B approach, blending emo rock, kawaii flourishes and frequent suicidal musings. Could there be any clearer antecedent to them than Lil B holding a gun to his head in a video with Elliott Smith playing in the background?
“It’s come around full circle, the influence,” says Clams. “It really had an impact, whether people acknowledge it or not. The landscape that it changed is crazy. And it’s rewarding, being inspired by the kids who were inspired by us. Lil Pump and Smokepurpp and Lil Peep, I listen to all that stuff and I’m inspired by that back. That’s the best thing I could get out of it.”
Rappers now want to wild out, create a cult online, wear crazy clothes, say outlandish stuff, tweet about how if you don’t eat ass, then you’re uptight. They want concerts like Lil B’s where people mosh and it feels like a new religion. Everybody wants something real, wants to belong.
Lil B once famously wondered, “Am I even a rapper anymore?” When he went solo on his teen hyphy group the Pack in 2008, he turned his back on major labels. He decided to make hundreds of ambient freestyles on a hundred MySpace pages instead. Back then, that break looked like mental illness. In hindsight, maybe it was the equivalent of how a young chef’s unpaid apprenticeship can drain her soul but change her outlook forever. That experiment led to “I’m God,” the foundational Clams Casino cloud banger and the lone song on Lil B’s official MySpace in 2009. The future of rap came from a frustration with rap.
“When he created that persona and character, it related to the kids and the teens—everyone developing into adulthood, looking to be accepted.” says Keyboard Kid. “[It was] a time where there were all of a sudden so many ways to express yourself and be yourself, but people weren’t knowing exactly how to, or were afraid to. ‘Is it OK for me to say this on the internet? Is it OK for me to express these things? Or to be funny?’”
A large part of Lil B’s project over the years has been needling the traditionalist who thought they knew all the rules of rap and it was their job to enforce them. They are finally falling off. By getting under these guys’ skin, Lil B showed artists they didn’t have to fit in. Everything was up for reconsideration. And he was right. Not only was hip hop undergoing its own existential crisis, but the internet and rise of social media presented a real turning point for human history. Picture Lil B facing those hundred-plus MySpaces in 2008, looking into a very real abyss.
By the time his 2011 album I’m Gay (I’m Happy) came out, with its sturdy backpack beats and lucid if still very hippie-ish raps, lots of naysayers had come around to the fact that Lil B was a force for good. Sure, many of his literally thousands of songs were very annoying and seemingly existed for the express sake of trolling Joe Budden, but he could also make tight albums with emotional depth and knocking production.
In 2017, people still hate Lil B. And while not liking his music is one thing (totally normal reaction), believing that he’s ruined music will tear us apart as rap listeners. Which is maybe fine. Maybe the future is about factions. But I don’t like that idea of living in a world that never overlaps. What can we shout across the divide to help close the generation gap?
The answer may be in my favorite lyric off I’m Gay (I’m Happy), lifted from “Open Thunder Eternal Slumber”:
“I got a new deal / I keep it too real.”
There it is, the discomfort and the familiarity. Forty years into hip-hop history, old heads are going to have to accept that this is good enough: rappers are still concerned with keeping it real. It’s common ground with the kids. Authenticity is still the currency in rap, just as it was pre-internet. By going against all industry norms with his based program, Lil B branded himself as the “Realist Alive.”
Lil B still operates like a pure renegade, and there is still a lot to be learned from his decisions. Let’s just hope that more rappers and producers look into their hearts and decide to follow whatever the most based move may be. Because right now, even though Lil B changed the game and we see it everywhere, it often feels like he was pointing at the moon and we’re still staring at his finger.