• Undercover Dentist

Lil’ B and Auteur Extremism: Trapped in Basedworld

written by: on June 20, 2012

Lil B is rap’s answer to those unwashed young men who, having caught a Prurient set, decide that all it takes to make the noise scene is a contact mic and a digital effects pedal. After listening to Ol’ Dirty Bastard and Kool Keith, the Based God made a similar calculation, figuring that it would be easy to create rhymeless, arrhythmic raps.

So easy he could do 15 a week.

It takes a special artist to make something transcendent look easy. The inverse of popular conception holds true of the best noise musicians and outré rappers: It is not that anyone can do what they do, but that using techniques available to everyone, they do what no one else can.

But absolutely anyone can do what Lil B does. Provided you have the free time and the patience to ramble idiotically over music, you are as good a candidate as any to hit a nerve among the almost-hip critical community. Cultural critics have been expounding regularly on the Lil B phenomenon and his significance to the changing face of hip-hop for the past few years, always touching on his mind-boggling prolificacy: In April alone he released three album-length mixtapes of new material.

It is telling that none of the essays bother to describe what listening to all of these mixtapes is really like, so I’ll do it for them: it sucks. B’s final release of April, the mix tape Trapped in Basedworld, is an unpleasant, unrewarding and overlong trip through some stoner’s dream journal. In other efforts B has been aided or even redeemed by excellent production from Clams Casino and others, on Basedworld there is no saving grace.

“MMMM Damn,” the tape’s fourth track features the classic flow “Fuck what you think pussy I’m still about that smother/Fuck what you think bitch I’m rich and I’m home alone/I’m rich bitch with 12 phones/Bitches suck my dick with the lights on.” The sequence mimics exactly the sad waning moments of an amateur pot-head cipher around a laptop in a carpeted bedroom.

It is not hard to guess why someone writing about how “important” Lil B is goes out of his way to avoid discussing the music.

Credit where it’s due, Pitchfork has taken the time to actually review a fraction of Lil B’s output in the past two years. And yet in a way that only Pitchfork can, the reviews manage to avoid discussing the music as much as possible, always pretending the value lies somewhere outside of what the record actually sounds like.

Each of Pitchfork’s four album reviews, all positive, contains at least one line where the writer marvels at how shitty Lil’ B is at rapping, before slapping a positive number at the top and calling the record “fascinating,” or “remarkable.”

In his 7.8 (out of 10) review of 2011’s BasedGod Veilli writer Jayson Greene describes a particular Lil B flow thusly: “it’s artless, it’s fumbling, the lines barely connect with a rhyming syllable at the end—but it’s a remarkable outpouring nonetheless.”

Imagine applying this kind of criticism to any other artistic endeavor and the thickness of the forest becomes clear. “The movie’s plot was unfocused, the cinematography was inept and the characters unbelievable—but it is an outstanding creation regardless,” or “his language is dreary and repetitive, the ending is a failure and the narration makes me want to stab out my own eyes—but this is a significant addition to the canon.”

Here is a pairing of descriptors from the other three Pitchfork reviews:

In Greene’s 8.0 review of God’s Father: “atrocious” and “fascinating.”

In Jordan Sargent’s 6.3 review of White Flame: “useless” and “incredible.”

In Greene’s 8.1 review of I’m Gay (I’m Happy): “artless” and “compelling.”

That final title, I’m Gay, is Lil B’s only official album, and it is easily the best thing he has ever put out. The album’s quality is due mostly to its consistently excellent production, and partly because it seems the Based God felt compelled to at least consider what he was going to say before pressing record. I’m Gay still isn’t very good, certainly not good enough to justify a year-plus of fawning reviews and strained features. So what is everyone chattering about?

All of the coverage I’ve seen on the Based God has followed the same noxious pattern: writers writing about how fascinating and weird it is that other writers have written about how much has been written about Lil B. I don’t know where the first ever Lil’ B profile or trend piece is, but it is hard to fathom what it is about. It is probably a look to the eventual befuddling fame of one Brandon McCartney.

Lil B’s fame is not at all shocking or interesting, it only says something about the culture in that it reflects how far up its own ass the commentariat are willing to crawl. So far Lil B’s best contribution to the culture has been his ability to inspire writers to twist themselves inside out to explain what makes him so fascinating (hint: it is never the sound of the music he creates).

Miles Raymer of The Reader suggests it is his use of the Internet to promote his music, and that Lil’ B has 400,000 Twitter followers but most people are unaware of him; Andrew Noz of NPR thinks it is his prolificacy and that McCartney is nice in person but creates “aggressively vulgar” songs; Jon Caramanica of the New York Times thinks it is that Lil B refers to himself as the Based God, and on and on, no one touching on anything actually interesting or remarkable.

Typically the writer also hazards the suggestion that Lil B is crazy. Noz suggests his music may be the result of a “compulsive disorder”; Slate’s Jonah Weiner calls him a “weirdo.” Anyone who has even passively watched traditional media’s rap criticism over the past five years will recognize this archetype: The crazy rapper who doesn’t know what he’s saying and is too wild to censor himself. Tyler the Creator filled the role last year, everyone pretending a teenager being solipsistic and casually offensive was a bizarre phenomenon. Before him was Gucci Mane, before that Lil’ Wayne. Some have suggested Kanye West, the most self-aware and self-conscious figure in rap, for the role (The New York Times considers Kanye’s public persona “refreshingly unchecked” umm…). When the mainstream media comes to town any rapper could be the next urban Daniel Johnston.

There is nothing disordered about tweeting out to women in all caps, or professing a love for ass eating, or giving yourself a second nickname. There is nothing weird about rambling semi-coherently over beats. What is weird is the critical hive mind deciding these ramblings are remarkable because they are so terrible.

On Basedworld Lil B is more than unfocused, he is repetitive and contradictory.  At times the beats have a lo-fi charm, and listening to any single track from the tape one might be struck with a curiosity about Lil B’s unique approach. Continuing beyond those first few minutes wears away any initial interest. One verse of Lil B’s rambling incoherence provokes the sense that it is “ok for a freestyle,” and then you hear the next verse and he repeats the same few lines again, stumbling backwards into repetitions of “fuck what you heard” and claiming to look like different celebrities.

I’d excerpt more of his lyrics but according to Pitchfork’s Greene: “reproducing lines like these in print doesn’t do them justice.” Wellll isn’t that convenient. For critics, Lil B’s contradictions and the inconsistency of his “philosophy” are all part of the appeal.

When discussing Lil B writers employ the “Tupac Rule,” wherein the contradiction of two simple statements automatically make each individual statement interesting and complex. This is not actually true. McCartney claiming to be anti-sexist is a noble and unnuanced stance, just as songs called “Suck my Dick Hoe,” and “Violate that Bitch” are boring and offensive. That the same rapper did both doesn’t make either more complex or fascinating, it simply proves the rapper has nothing of merit to add to the conversation. “Dear Mama” is cloying and “I Get Around” is boring, that Tupac’s songs contradict one another enhances neither.

Climbing further up the asshole, Raymer’s Reader piece explains “Lil B refers to women as ‘bitches,’ but he also uses the word to refer to himself.”

The logical acrobacy employed in this justification makes me sore; it’s just a minor inconvenience that every writer’s would-be feminist rap hero happens to constantly use misogynist terminology. I wonder what the response would be to a group of white jocks explaining that they all call each other nigger so it is totally cool if they use it in reference to black people.

To critics like Raymer, creating an absolutely unlistenable mixtape like Welcome to Basedworld is bound to rank as another check in the fascinating column for Lil B. For those of us who like actually listening to music, it serves as a completely unrewarding slog. Raymer and his colleagues are promoting an untenable critical theory: that everything peripheral to the work, biography, ethos, discography, is more important than the actual piece of art itself.

There is nothing wrong with following an artist’s career and finding something interesting in both her successes and failures, but this is the auteur theory pushed to its breaking point by critics who haven’t bothered to consider the ramifications. What stock can you put in a writer’s insights and opinions when you know he or she has moved past the music itself and is considering art only as a secondary product?

Whatever came before it and whatever Lil B may stand for, Basedworld is a single creation released for public consumption, and it is awful and uninteresting.

Lil B is not crazy, or weird or stupid. He is just lazy. And all of the tone-deaf profiles written on him provide an exact disincentive for McCartney to put forth any more effort. Other independent rappers who take the time to create work of value cannot claim a fraction of Lil B’s publicity. It is not the critic’s job to make every artist better, but it is a shame when the critical community takes part in making an artist worse.