Between his SUPERB performance and a cover shoot for fellow UC Berkeley student publication Caliber, you might say that East Bay rapper Lil B is “locally world famous.” Or, while catching up on the evening news, you might double take at the screen and say, “Wait, isn’t that Lil B? I thought I was watching CNN.”
You are. Watching CNN, that is. And that’s Lil B on the evening news, explaining why he’s endorsing Bernie Sanders for president. Maybe you’re not into CNN. Maybe MSNBC is more your thing. The rapper appears and you’re met with a bout of déjà vu. “Isn’t that… is that Lil B?”
Then again, maybe only your parents watch CNN or MSNBC. Turns out the sole reason you own a TV is for ESPN. Voila, there he is again, on SportsNation. “Lil B knows sports, I guess?”
Even if you’re not a TV person, odds are good that you’re still aware of Lil B’s triumphant summer. Starting with his curse of James Harden during the NBA Western Conference Finals in May, The BasedGod blazed through several interviews with the media on a wide variety of subjects, almost none of which concerned his music. He offered his opinions on the Black Lives Matter movement in the context of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, the NBA playoffs, transgender and gay rights, and other policy issues. Of course, that’s not to say Lil B’s music has been irrelevant these past few months — a free freestyle mixtape with steadily rising Chicago emcee Chance the Rapper has garnered considerable attention since its release earlier this year. Chance referred to the appropriately titled Free (Based Freestyles Mixtape) as a “masterpiece.”
Despite his ubiquitous media presence, a simple Google search results in the valid impression that Lil B’s music, much of which is packed into exorbitantly-sized mixtapes, merits neither his popularity nor his influence. The lyrical content of his work is almost irritatingly myopic; for many, his improvisational and thematic styles will be tolerable only in small doses. It’s easy to tell that Lil B has never aimed for “good.” Nevertheless, The BasedGod’s “Wonton Soup” catapulted him into Internet meme-dom, providing him with exposure which he cleverly cultivated into a questionable, yet somehow devoted, following.
Years ago, around the time that “Wonton Soup” blew up, being aware of The BasedGod and his music counted toward your hip cred. Anything good was “based.” Now, his million-plus Twitter followers suggest a far greater level of success than would be expected. For some, the Based lifestyle — one that preaches unconditional love, self-confidence and acceptance — is admirable and worth adhering to through social media. Others know of the rapper because of his music alone, in which case Lil B is a joke that ballooned and was let loose to expend its gaseous contents aimlessly around the room, ephemeral in nature but sure to cause a hysterical stir.
Kids used to worship The BasedGod because of all the shits he didn’t give. Now everyone pays attention to the ones he does.
It would seem that Lil B’s plethora of television appearances is partially contingent on the fact that news producers aren’t able to make the comparison between Lil B and competing rappers, based purely on musical content or talent. So what distinction has led him to this level of influence? His social media prowess is certainly nothing to scoff at: even if the majority of his tweets are random girls’ selfies, directly messaged to him via Instagram, its power is unquestionable.
To test his social media activity, I created a Twitter account. The original goal was to earn a retweet by The BasedGod himself within three tweets.
What actually happened was much more telling than the hypothetical completion of my objective. With my very first tweet, in the midst of The BasedGod’s current, perhaps misplaced, discussion about the negative effects of a staunch patriarchy, a magical thing happened.
I am now one of Lil B’s 1.6 million followers. He is now one of my 2 followers.
Inclusion is not just an essential element of Lil B’s agenda; it is the groundwork for his social media philosophy. His authenticity as a person is not featured in his lyrics, as rappers’ discographies typically indicate. Instead, his artistry takes root in the periphery of his purpose. Although he previously collected notoriety from “Wonton Soup” and other ridiculous so-called hits, Lil B’s 2015 fame is derived from his personality on social media. Of course, this isn’t the first time a celebrity has achieved household name status despite a relative lack of talent, but is Lil B the first of his kind in the quickly evolving world of hip hop, a world in which copious spending is the primary proxy for success? Quite possibly.
Other young artists like Riff Raff have followed a comparable arc. But instead of continuing to dwell in the social media realm and issue massive mixtapes, Riff Raff chose to redefine his audience, opting to join an entirely different genre with Diplo’s Mad Decent label. His comedy-driven, at times obnoxious, persona strikes a different chord than Lil B’s does, but his diversion from the main pack is important to take into account. There isn’t much more room for the hipster-rap-clown archetype in 2015, but Lil B and Riff Raff both prove that such a standard does actually exist.
The rapidly expanding social media galaxy of the late 2000s make acts like Lil B possible. A grey area remains between comedy and legitimacy, where artists continue to push boundaries. Lil B, who is now a notorious lecturer on college campuses (as is A$AP Rocky, it seems), has found a special place both in the internet realm and in curious intellectual dialogues, which only adds to his enigmatic persona. The artist that used to be the most predictable act in a staunchly predictable genre has thrown his curveball. Many different crucial cogs had to turn accurately to render the amount of influence Lil B now enjoys; “making it” the way he has is relatively unlikely for any humorous rap act.
Therefore, is it even useful to critique Lil B in the context of the modern rap industry? Perhaps not. Comparing the Basedgod to Drake, Kanye, and Kendrick is… well, it’s unnecessary. Will Lil B ever approaching that caliber of musicianship? Highly unlikely. Has Lil B transcended the modern rap industry? Certainly not. He’s simply slipped through its sieve and come out with a special voice, one that can poke fun at sports celebrity personalities and toss unpopular opinions into relevant debates.
Lil B has found a way to use a genre with relentlessly specific customs and habits to his own comically unique advantage. He managed to forge success by flipping every accepted prerequisite of the rap industry on its head, and that rebuttal of normalcy, both within and outside of the world of rap, has lent a critical new aspect of being “based.” And endorsing a socialist Jew for president on national television is just the beginning.
Article by Darius Kay