- This Week
From Berkeley to the World Wide Web, rapper and online innovator Lil B is taking over
09.07.10 - 12:58 pm | Willy Staley |
Lil B: "I'm not on TV right now. I don't have a single on the radio, but people know my songs word-for-word at shows."GUARDIAN PHOTO BY MATTHEW REAMER
That's why it surprises me to hear Lil B lamenting all the dishonesty in rap. The problem is structural, he explains. To rap you have to rhyme, and in his words, "It can't all be true 'cause you're consciously changing around words and scenarios in your mind to make it add up in the rap." While rappers may whine about a perceived decline in quality of rap over the years, it's rare to hear one criticize inherent flaws in the medium; plenty of early-1990s backpack rappers dazzle with their knowledge of Egyptology's finer points, but this sort of meta-critique is far more impressive. It also pinpoints something people often forget about Lil B: he's clever, and he cares about and thinks about rap music. It seems like he really wants to overcome this central flaw in hip-hop and doesn't see any problem with making songs that are nothing but lies in the process. It makes his hoes-on-my-dick-cause-I-look-like-X bit that much more clever — something like a parody of the absurd claims that rap music traffics in.
Though B's mixtape collaborations with Soulja Boy will likely be fruitful for generating mainstream publicity, and his YouTube dirty raps good for getting pageviews and new followers, what he considers his most honest work, the work he's most proud of, is his upcoming album Rain in England. The beats, all produced by Lil B, have an ambient, waves-of-sound feel, with occasional keyboard flourishes but no percussion or clear time-signature. It sounds half new age, half spoken word. "The crazy thing is that a lot of people say it's like spoken word," B agrees, when I ask him about the similarities. "But really I wrote that as if I was writing a rap." That Lil B never made beats before Rain in England highlights his enigmatic appeal: it's often hard to tell whether he's brilliant, just sort of crazy, or both. "I didn't know what I was doing," he explains, "but somehow Rain in England came about." He speaks of the recording as if it was inevitable — an odd thing to suggest about a new age/spoken word/rap album. Artistic intent aside, B knows his market: the album is being released on Weird Forest, an experimental/electronic label. How's that for a guy who collaborates with Soulja Boy?
It's worth noting that Lil B wrote Rain in England at a coffee shop. Also, he talks about it the way you hear people with lots of tattoos explain their tattoos. "I'm gonna look back and [the album's] gonna remind me of the time period I was in," he says. The album's subject matter is about as un-stereotypically "hip-hop" as its process would suggest. On one track, "My Windowsill," Lil B free-associates about his neighborhood and his future while looking out his window; on another, "All Women," Lil B rhapsodizes about the beauty and wisdom of the fairer sex. It's a far cry from the Lil B of YouTube fame: the Lil B who makes songs like "Violate That Bitch," which would probably make Tipper Gore return to politics, if she ever heard it; the Lil B who, alongside San Francisco's Messy Marv, claims he is Hannah Montana, on a song that would make your gender studies TA's head spin. But it's still Lil B.
That this apparent divide is downright bizarre is not lost on B. "I have a lot of different, you know, feelings and personalities," he tells me, explaining that this translates into versatility. "I can do 'Swag OD' but then my favorite musical artist right now could be Antony and the Johnsons. That's the difference between me and these other rappers, and other musical artists in general." This is true to a certain extent: Lil B has a tendency to draw on other genres of music that don't have a home in mainstream rap — or even rap in general — to infuse his music with pathos.