Books & Arts | October 15, 2012 at 5:05 pm

Thank You, Based Art

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On April 11th, 2012, rapper Brandon “Lil B” McCartney gave a speech to a packed lecture hall at New York University. In his 80-minute, ad-libbed address, Lil B spoke on love, understanding, and his responsibilities as a role model.

Lil B lecturing at NYU. Photo credit: BET

That same month, Lil B released a song called “MMMMMMMM DAMN,” which features the lyric “Fuck what you think bitch, I’m rich and I’m home grown / I’m rich bitch with twelve phones / Bitches suck my dick with the lights on / Fuck what ya heard bitch it’s based for life, pussy.” Obviously, Lil B is sending his fans mixed messages.

Lil B (a.k.a. The Based God) has used the word “based” to describe his unique brand of rap music, characterized by incomplete freestyles, oft-repeated lyrics, and random interjections of words like “swag,” “woop,” and “BasedGod!” A lyric from Lil B’s track “Ellen Degeneres” provides an example: “Put me on the couches, interview my girlfriend, swag swag swag swag buh, brang dang dang your girlfriend.” The rapper also produces a prolific amount of music: in July of 2012 alone, Lil B released 4 mixtapes; another of his mixtapes contains 676 songs.

It seems easy to dismiss Lil B, with his facile words of hope and his half-baked, offensive lyrics, as just another mindless rapper attempting to spin his music as something positive, much like the ultra-violent yet professedly spiritual Insane Clown Posse.

I’m not quite ready to consign the Based God to the cultural junk heap, however. Mindless or not, his lyrics are entertaining: “You going shopping, fuck going shopping” from “Bill Bellamy,” for example, or “I hate bullies, quit picking on me you bitch” from “Ima Catch a Murder.” His prodigious output and consciously moronic, repetitive, and incomplete freestyles are at the very least interesting. Actually, in his methods and his public persona, Lil B resembles some of the leading avant-garde artists of the 1950s and ‘60s, in particular Yves Klein and Andy Warhol.

Bear with me here for a second.

In the late 40s and early 50s, Jackson Pollock firmly entrenched what has come to be known as the “myth of the artist”: the heroic painter confronted a blank canvas and conquered it with an expression of his inner self, his inner genius. Artists in the ’50s and ’60s like Andy Warhol and Ellsworth Kelly made art to counter this idea. Kelly traced pre-existing patterns and used primary colors and arbitrary materials to remove as much of the decision making process as possible from the artist. Warhol also used arbitrary subject matter, selecting omnipresent subjects both mundane (Campbell Soup cans) and super-famous (Marilyn Monroe). His works were produced quickly and sloppily via mechanical processes, and were frequently done by assistants rather than Warhol himself.

Both of these processes for artistic creation removed the necessity of an artistic “genius,” making art more about materiality, mass production, and mass culture than creativity or transcendence. The music of Lil B functions in a similar way. He produces hundreds and hundreds of songs, each very similar, with only a handful clichéd phrases, often times layered over each other almost nonsensically. Take “Bill Clinton,” for example. Lil B has reduced rap to its most basic form—a set of sexual and boastful clichés repeated over and over again. Lil B, is, in effect, saying that this is all that rap music amounts to—beats and sound bites.

So maybe Lil B’s songs are clever, maybe there’s a method to his madness. But how can this author, a dedicated listener of Lil B, reconcile this intelligent, almost neo-Dada music with his vague and somewhat nonsensical political advocacy? Just to give you an idea, Lil B recently planned to release an album called I’m Gay, in support of gay rights. After receiving several threats in the mail, however, Lil B quickly renamed the album I’m Gay (I’m Happy). The rapper told MTV: “I’m very gay, but I love women. I’m not attracted to men in any way. I’ve never been attracted to a man in my life. But yes I am gay, I’m so happy. I’m a gay, heterosexual male.”

Once again, avant-garde techniques can help us to understand what Lil B is doing. Let’s take a look at one of the most controversial artists of the 1950s, Yves Klein. Klein advocated a concept he referred to as “immaterial pictorial sensibility,” or the idea that color transcended mere visual perception and occupied a place uniquely in the mind of the viewer. To prove this, Klein held a show in Milan, where he presented eleven identical monochrome blue paintings, exhibited at various points around the room. Each piece was worth a different amount, and after careful consideration, eleven visitors bought each of the eleven identical pieces, each for a different price.

Klein claimed that this meant viewers recognized something beyond the mere visual, something in the mind itself, and that this recognition was symbolized by monetary payment. Klein eventually took this idea to its logical extreme, selling certificates that marked their buyers as owners of “immaterial pictorial sensibility” in exchange for gold dust, half of which Klein would throw into the Seine (the other half he kept for himself).

Some critics hated Klein’s audacity, claiming he was a talentless hack, exploiting the idiosyncrasies of the art market for profit. Others praised him as a genius, saying his work critiqued the market effectively and beautifully. There’s no reason both descriptions can’t apply however—Klein’s critique was effective and frequently beautiful, but that didn’t stop him from raking in the cash.

Lil B also exploits the contradiction between his songs, which challenge the status quo of rap, and seemingly inane public speeches. He calls attention to a sort of cognitive dissonance in our culture today. Hardcore violence, racism, and sexism are celebrated in all aspects of our culture—music, literature, video games, movies—and lurk along the edges and underbelly of our society, despite our professed politics of change. Many of us must flip back and forth between our progressive politics and a cultural surrounding of hate and violence many times a day. Lil B’s antics bring these shifts to the fore, and make them ridiculous. No one could highlight like Lil B the absurdity and potential scariness of these shifts.

The vagueness and nonsensical nature of Lil B’s public speeches make effect all the more dramatic: “at the end of the day, I look at animals and insects. You know I’m the first rapper to adopt a tabby cat. You know I adopted straight from the ASPCA, you feel me? Just breaking the boundaries, man.” Lil B has to sell the fact that he’s actually unaware of the contradiction between his violent, sexist music and his vague positivity in public life. He needs to convince us that this contradiction can, and does, exist in the world; he needs to teach us to be on the lookout. And he does this, with terrible free-styling, sexist lyrics, and silly anecdotes.

But if a listener actually happens to be moved by something that Lil B says, the former hasn’t been tricked. The Based God still believes in positive thinking and toleration—he wants us to be kind, to understand one another. He actually means what he says when he tells us that “to respect women is obvious, yo.” It is this delicate balance between satiric irony and true belief that makes Lil B so interesting, and so worth engaging with.

I don’t expect this article to have completely changed your opinion of The Based God, but at the very least, I hope to have shown you that Lil B does use several legitimate and critical avant-garde tactics in his music. He does not deserve to be instantly dismissed as just another idiot. And even if you still have your doubts about Lil B’s intelligence and wit, you can still enjoy his signature Wonton Soup.

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