"The Basedgod is who I want to be," said Lil B—né Brandon McCartney—ooking out the backseat window of a cramped Jeep flying down Chrystie Street late last Thursday. "The Based God is the perfect one, while Lil B is like, the artist and the rapper, the truth in being yourself" He paused, quietly fingering a nug of weed given to him by a fan just before we left the New Museum after his performance, "you know what I mean?"
That evening’s performance at the New Museum had begun with the usual positive anecdotes, referring to himself as "art history," with his "music painted on people’s souls like the paintings on the walls," before launching into a song called Ima Eat Her Ass. "I’m not just a rapper man," said the hip-hop wunderkind. "I’m a… what’s that called again? An enigma." The sparse space, void of any projections or distractions, was the perfect backdrop for his metaphorically small stature on stage to be framed by his own massive shadow.
I had been lucky enough to tag along with his posse, consisting of a cool white guy named Sebastian handling every aspect of Lil B from publicity to driver and an 18 year old kid with a camera. We cruised around and, while I understood the distinction he was making between himself and the enigmatic character of The Based God, I also understood to his cultish following there is no difference between the two. To his fans, Lil B is a god, The Based God, and from what I’d experienced the past two days, he is to be worshiped as such.
Last week was a big one for the 22-year-old Bay Area rapper. In the span of three days he released a new twenty song mixtape, Basedprint II; lectured to 500 NYU kids at a highly anticipated, overly attended guest lecture; and in conclusion, a two-hour-long performance at the New Museum. While the two events were staggeringly different in content and tone, the audience’s reaction remained the same: blind worship.
Sitting next to me in this modest box blue Jeep, Lil B politely silenced his phone as to not interrupt my questions. A light ring of sweat seeped through his neon blue shirt, the Rolling Stones logo tattooed on the nape of his throat glistened in the street lights. Laughing heartily at barely funny jokes, his presence was hardly prophetic—he just seemed like a nice, regular guy who’d found a niche in re-appropriating the basic moral statutes we’ve been taught since preschool. No harm in that, I suppose, but I couldn’t seem to grasp the root of such incredible glorification as I’d witnessed during the events until I began thinking about that which he provides his audience.
The NYU event, which sold out within ten minutes of his Twitter announcement, was packed to the point that kids were picketing outside for tickets. At least 500 fans, almost all white undergrads, chanted, "Based God! Based God!" Anticipation was high; Lil B had said nothing of the event other than that the speech would change lives. At 23, I was probably the oldest person there. The following morning The Fader had transcribed the entire thing and posted it to their website.
Lil B tends to deal in obtuse sentiments that excite and carry a positive message but are difficult to rein in enough to be understood as clear direction for action. Such was the case with his speech last Wednesday. The room erupted as he took the stage in a neon yellow shirt with a fanciful yellow scarf tied around his neck. Everyone jumped to their feet; many stood on chairs, and remained standing throughout the 80-minute speech. He began, "Man. I love y’all man," and even I, a diehard cynic, immediately liked him. He was well spoken and sincere, funny even. Though many of his statements were trite, they were delivered in such an endearingly genuine way that they came off as enlightened. For once, all these things we’ve been told all our lives, the basic rules to live by that are overlooked in that they’re nothing but stock phrases now devoid of real meaning, seemed to ring true.
But suddenly, I stepped back. The kid next to me was on his knees, praising up and down while repetitively whispering "Based God." Everyone was so animatedly involved in his every word that it became a bit pathetic to watch. How can you love everyone in a room when you’ve never met any of them? Eerie camaraderie was brewing and I wanted no part of the room’s collective sense of blind faith. It felt like Sunday Mass. There was little difference between his message and the way it was received than that of a reverend preaching a sermon. I grew increasingly tired of the word "positive," and by the time he had the whole room chanting, "I’m lucky I’m alive!" I wanted to go home.
Bumping down the cobblestones of Crosby Street in our aimless excursion around downtown Manhattan, I asked Lil B about he felt about drugs, concious of the nug in his hand. "It’s a love-hate relationship," he told me. "Substance abuse is a really delicate issue, it’s rough for a lot of people. Really you just got to try to reserve and conserve your body as much as possible and love yourself. Drugs only lead to a downhill, depending on how you view it. That’s what it really does if you abuse it. Just try to stay drug free really. Really that is the thing, staying drug free is the way to go. I’m no to drugs."
I asked him if he felt he’d accomplished his goal for the speech, if he felt he’d changed people’s lives. "Yes," he said, "and especially with the tone today, with the show that you came to at the New Museum, and with the tone yesterday, it’s just a big tone of love and I think everybody is comfortable now. I feel like everybody has a weight off their shoulders because people understand it a bit more."
Though I wasn’t completely sold on the clarification of his overall posi attitude as a life-changing event, Lil B undoubtedly touched kids in that room in a way they will never forget. It was evident in their overwhelming reactions. Whether or not this change was coming from a true internalization of his preaching, or just being caught up in the feelings of love and acceptance from one of their idols, remains unclear.
I then asked him if he believes in God. "I definitely believe in a spirit. I look at God in the Bible… see I pray to God, but I’m not a slave to God. I’m not going to kill for God, but I know God loves, whatever God is. God to me is the conscience for the people that haven’t found it. It’s a positive affirmation. A lot of the things that I’ve read in the Bible are like, if you go through life you kind of know." Positive affirmation, a conscience for people that have yet to find their own, these are exactly the things Lil B offers his fans in the form of Based God. Having gone through life and found truth in the same basic sentiments found in the Bible, he offers them to sheltered kids who have yet to find moral wisdom through experience. Based God is a manifestation of Lil B’s mature interpretation of religion, and his devout fans are all his followers.
This dynamic was palpable at his New Museum performance last Thursday, part of an ongoing monthly series put on by the museum called "Get Weird." Completely sold out, the line to get in snaking around the block consisted of the same young, seemingly sheltered and style-less white kids as the speech did. Inside one of the museum’s whitewashed downstairs screening rooms, kids waited eagerly, crowding the stage, breaking into short various chanting sessions, one of which inexplicably went "Bie-ber! Bie-ber! Bie-ber!" It was pretty apparent these kids didn’t know what was up. Usually at a show there is some sort of aesthetic continuity, whereas the crowd at this show seemed to be defined by a stylistic randomness, with the only constant being a sense of counter cultural confusion. There was the greasy longhaired boy with khaki cargo pants underneath a frilly purple skirt sitting cross-legged in thick old running sneakers; the girl with two different shoes and a target-patterned oven mitt on one hand; the guy whose hat simply read "Rape." The misguided attempts at rebellion were palpable, but I was just as confused as them as to what they were rebelling against.
Whereas his message of love and peace at the NYU speech remained consistent and came off authentic, he seemed to have difficulty translating it into rap lyrics. The experience was oddly contradictory. A song that went out to "all the haters" consisted of the lyrics "fuck ’em, fuck ’em, fuck ’em," with gun shots blasting in the beat, followed by him yelling, "Stop the violence!" No one seemed to notice, all too enthralled with a performance I’ll leniently refer to as mediocre. The beats were for the most part great, overshadowing his lyrics and delivery, both of which could have used some work.
Interestingly enough, the articulate and charismatic guy who spoke at NYU was almost unrecognizable on this stage. Despite all this, he had the crowd transfixed. Even when he fumbled through a freestyle to the point that he stopped and said, "I can’t do it," his fans responded with "You’re a legend!" and "We believe in you Based God!" leading my friend, underground LES rapper ABC, to lean over and whisper, "did he put something in their drinks?"
But the kids were mostly too young to drink anyway—Lil B maintains his popularity because his fan base is incredibly impressionable. They eat up his Bay area notions of peace, love and positivity. Like most mainstream mediums of popular music before it, layers have separated within the Hip Hop genre. Rap isn’t exclusively gangster rap anymore. There are hipster rappers, punk rappers, techno rappers, and with Lil B, even hippyish rappers. His next project is a rock album called "California Boy." He’s spreading the same message of love and acceptance preached by Sixties icons, and there’s no difference between these kids who feel out as the lost youth who ran West looking for acceptance back then. He tells these kids it’s okay to be who they are. He tells kids who’ve never been considered cool that they are cool, that everyone is cool and we’re all one big family.
By the end of the show, half the audience was on stage dancing with Lil B, dressing him up in their clothes, smothering him with camera phone pictures and tablet videos, being part of something. "He touched my hand!" I heard one kid in a wicker hat exclaim. He stayed an hour after wrapping up his performance offering "free hugs" to any takers, posing for photos. "This is definitely my new pro pic," said one Facebook-forward blonde.
Despite any inconsistencies in Lil B’s persona, his success is that he cares to reach kids in a positive way that not many entertainers can or know how to do in the new internet economy. Though it can sound corny, and though it can manifest in unfortunate ways such as a scrawny teen throwing up signs in a du rag, it could certainly be worse. Then again, there’s no telling what direction he’ll take it in next, telling his New Museum audience, "This is the last time you’ll see me in this form. I’m about to transform." As an incredibly prolific artist, having recorded over 2000 songs in his relatively short career, and with rock and roll on his list of conquests, there’s no way to know is to come.
Photo by Lucas Alvarado-Farrar / Far Fetched Future