In 2006 a teenage Bay Area rap group called the Pack released the single “Vans.” Essentially a four-minute free advertisement for the shoe company of the same name, it combines an infectious, minimalist beat and a confusing hook: “Got my Vans on, but they look like sneakers.” The song’s bare-bones catchiness and the Pack’s pre-Odd Future black-skate-punk image—I once saw them use the roof of a compact car as a stage for an impromptu live performance, thoroughly trashing it in the process—made “Vans” a hit in the underground rap world. But the underground rap world has one-hit wonders too, and after their 2007 full-length, Based Boys, tanked, the Pack seemed fated for obscurity.
Then in 2009 a member of the Pack, Brandon “Lil B” McCartney, by then 20 years old and calling himself “the Based God,” began releasing a stream of solo tracks on MySpace and YouTube that quickly grew into a flood—though the quantity of music and the formats he prefers make it close to impossible to compile an accurate discography, his Wikipedia page now lists 26 full-length releases and claims he’s recorded more than 1,500 songs. The hipsters who’d briefly made stars of the Pack were slow to pick up on Lil B’s solo material, but a legion of younger fans—most of them black teens—latched on to him almost immediately. On Twitter, where he posts with a frequency that borders on the compulsive, he has just over 400,000 followers.
The Internet age has made it commonplace for artists to find substantial audiences without the aid of traditional star-making machinery, but there’s nothing common about the degree of success Lil B has achieved. Last year’s provocatively titled I’m Gay (I’m Happy)—though he’s straight, Lil B is probably the most outspoken antihomophobe in hip-hop—landed on the Billboard R&B/Hip-Hop Albums and Heatseekers Albums charts, against all kinds of odds. It came out on the tiny digital rap label Amalgam Entertainment, Lil B shared a link to download it for free on the same day it dropped, it was barely promoted except on his Twitter, and no one aside from his loyal fans (and music journalists) seems to be aware that he even exists.
One of the more fascinating aspects of the Internet-inflicted fracturing of media culture is the proliferation of bona fide celebrities (arguably what anyone with almost half a million fans should be considered) of whom most consumers are completely unaware. Fugazi, who acquired a big enough fan base to crack the Billboard charts but barely made a blip on the mainstream’s radar, were an anomaly two decades ago, but today they wouldn’t be. Instead of a monoculture with a tiny number of famous people absorbing the majority of the public’s attention, we have a divided landscape of barely overlapping worldviews, each of which can spawn media personalities invisible from within the others.
Though Lil B has ambitions of cracking the mainstream (he once got on Twitter to demand that Kanye West make a record with him) and occasionally seems to get his foot in the door (NFL players on TV have done his signature “cooking” dance in the end zone), he also seems to understand that not having to please the greatest possible number of people gives him a lot of freedom. He’s taken advantage of it to develop a musical style and personality that are so eccentric they border on the avant-garde. He prefers chilled-out, nearly ambient beats (the best have come from production wunderkind Clams Casino) rather than big, broadly accessible bangers, and during his initial ascendency he showed little concern for the standards by which rappers have traditionally been judged. Words tumbled out of his mouth with little apparent regard for cadence or rhyme, and he frequently flirted with the line that separates a rapper from somebody who’s just saying things into a microphone—accordingly, many rap fans refuse to take him at all seriously.
Fascinatingly Lil B started to take the “cult” aspect of “cult musician” more literally than it’s usually meant, taking the self-mythologizing already rampant in hip-hop to an absurd level. He’s long promoted a vague “Based” philosophy that seems to be a mellow California-hippie analogue to the Bad Brains’ Positive Mental Attitude, and inspirational messages are one of the themes he returns to with almost obsessive frequency in his lyrics—along with his “swag,” how much he likes getting head, and famous people he claims he looks like but absolutely does not (Paris Hilton, Ellen DeGeneres, Hannah Montana). His fans often pay respect with standardized online comments or Twitter messages—”Thank you Based God” or an offer to let him “fuck my bitch”—that add a strangely ritualized feel to the interactions. (Lil B refers to women as “bitches,” but he also uses the word to refer to himself—he has a side project called Bitch Mob. So there’s that.) Recently he’s been pulling something of a guru act—his Twitter feed has been full of messages promoting world peace and his own greatness. He even wrote a self-help book, Takin’ Over by Imposing the Positive! My Personal Rap to You.
“Lil B is one of the most revolutionary artists in music, all he has to do is walk and they follow,” reads a quote on the cover of God’s Father, the 34-song mix tape he released in late February—and it’s attributed, of course, to Lil B himself. The thing is, he’s at least a little right. His experiment in not-rapping seems to have paid off in an ability to duck and weave around the beat when he actually does rap—to paraphrase Jadakiss, he doesn’t ride a track, he parallel parks on it. On God’s Father Lil B is almost as compelling a performer as he is a personality, and if the mix had included half as many tracks and a couple more beats with crossover appeal (and had actually been promoted in some more traditional ways), it could’ve made him a star in the old-fashioned sense. It would be kind of sad to have to share Lil B with everyone else, but if we got world peace out of the deal, it’d be a fair trade.
On March 27, exactly one month after God’s Father dropped, the announcement went out that Lil B would be delivering a lecture at NYU on April 11. Details are scarce so far—he’s told Fuse.tv, “It’s gonna be a real progressive talk and when everybody leaves, their lives will be changed”—but it’s safe to assume that one of the subjects he’ll be speaking on is Lil B. As if to celebrate, early the next morning he released a new track, “Ima Eat Her Ass.” (Earlier this week he also dropped yet another mix tape, #1 Bitch, which according to the Fader brings his output for 2012 alone to almost five hours of music.) Like most of his material from before God’s Father, “Ima Eat Her Ass” is a rambling, incoherent freestyle released as a YouTube video—in this case, an unbelievably raunchy (and almost equally silly) tribute to doing exactly what the title promises. The video shows Lil B—accessorized with a floppy striped hat and some sort of stick-on facial jewelry—occasionally rapping along with the recording. In short order the song totally falls apart, at which point even he and his videographer seem to lose interest in what’s happening—there are several shots of Lil B messing with his smartphone. Watching it is a thoroughly confusing experience. What is happening, you might ask. And why? It hardly seems to matter, though. Praise from Lil B diehards has been filling my Twitter timeline for days.