Every Lil B mixtape is an event: a multi-stage, multimedia extravaganza that in all its quirkiness, interactivity, and downright craziness exemplifies why the Based God is the most fascinating artist currently doing it.
It starts with a new video, which teases a forthcoming new tape in the YouTube description, lyrics, title card, or some combination of the three. Then comes the Twitter campaign, wherein the Based God asks his female followers to tweet a link to the video, nearly each of which he then retweets, along with the standard fawning responses. Such are the benefits of following 830,000 people: One of the great pleasures of Twitter is happening upon a completely random account and seeing that Lil B got there first.
For a few days, the tweet/RT cycle continues, complemented by little based koans (each one signed "- Lil B") and various pictures or photoshopped images comprising what can only be described as the Based God Meme Industry. A few minutes on his Tumblr or his Instagram should clue you in to Based World's sense of humor. (In the event you are over the age of 35, "based" is Lil B's general life ethos that preaches staying true to yourself, and spreading love and positivity. Read this for a more thorough examination.)
Then comes a second video, or maybe just a leaked song—either way, it'll show up on YouTube, which is one of Lil B's primary innovations. Quickly abandoning his early home on MySpace, he was among the first artists to realize the site's power as the primary music-delivery service for young people: Instead of tolerating Pandora or Spotify or sketchy MP3 sites, kids would instead open a spare browser tab and trawl YouTube for hours on end, in search of both old obsessions and new ones.
That's how Justin Bieber got his start; ditto Kitty (neé Pryde) and Kreayshawn, two rappers who owe explicit debts to Lil B. Much of the Based God's music only exists on YouTube, in fact, often in the guise of full-blown (and usually self-directed) music videos. Videos like "B.O.R. (Birth of Rap)" typify Lil B's cinematic sensibilities: We follow him on a little Based Field Trip for one, the location, filter, shaky camera, half-interested lip-syncing, and ornate dissolves and wipes all adding to a mis-en-scène of mystery and carefully crafted indifference.
This goes on for awhile: the tweets, the videos, the memes, the anticipation. But eventually, the mixtape has to actually come out. There are no release dates in Based World, and while Lil B's output is less frequent than his 2010 peak of 198 songs spread over 14 different projects, he still puts out an absurd number of songs every year: In the past 12 months, he's only put out four tapes, though one, 05 Fuck Em, had 101 songs. By comparison, when Hoop Life, the Based God's exploration of the basketball life, finally arrived on the first of June, it clocked in at a mere two hours and 33 tracks. But don't worry: There's still plenty of Based God scripture to pore over.
On one hand, Hoop Life is a typical Lil B mixtape, from the celebrity songs ("Katy Perry," "Mack Maine") to the ignorant, crass, and often great cooking songs (overall highlight "Don't Go Outside") to the positive and explicitly #based ideological songs ("Scouts Report," "Real Based").
Then there's the Lil-B-can-really-rap song. "Only Time I Slow Down" has a beat that wouldn't sound out of place on an early-aughts Jay Z album, with a flow that does Jigga proud: The Based God's not really talking about anything other than how nice he is on the mic, but he does so with a lyrical dexterity his detractors refuse to acknowledge he even has. Like LeBron, no matter how many times Lil B defies the lazy narrative about his terrible rapping, the Skip Baylesses of the world keep moving the goalposts: "The only time I slow down is when a nigga be laughing / I don't judge a lot of things, just promoting my passion / Hip-hop make a nigga scream like he on acid / And I'm fly like NASA, I'm a python, bastards."
"Lyrics vs. sonics" is a debate as old as hip-hop itself, and Lil B is decidedly in the latter category, which immediately puts him at odds with rap's self-elected intelligentsia. Rappers more concerned with how they sound than what they say are rarely revered by the "lyrical miracle" crowd, unless you're Old Dirty Bastard or Lil Wayne.
Lil B has yet to earn that kind of acclaim, in part because it's so easy to dismiss him as a gimmick. His vocal experimentation is less pronounced now than it was back in his MySpace Based Freestyle phase, when he really was just droning into the mic, piling reverb after distortion after filter over his free-associated lyrics, tossing the result online, and starting over: Wash, rinse, repeat.
But even now that he occasionally hangs actual fleshed-out raps atop those skeletal, nonsensical flows, his music is still meant to enthrall the ear, not the mind. It's why Lil B can address such divergent topics as spreading love around the world or how he looks like the Jesus or how computers are ruining our generation's ability to relate to each other or how his rap sheet makes him Bill Bellamy, and it's all great. You don't listen because of the subject matter; you listen because it sounds fucking awesome.
So it goes with Hoop Life, which often uses basketball imagery as just another source of fuel to rev the traditional Lil B motor: "At the Freethrow," for example, is lyrically almost entirely about basketball, but pretty much the exact same song could've appeared on 2012's Obama BasedGod as "At the West Wing" or something, only with references to the Oval Office instead of Oakland's Mosswood Park.
Other tracks, however, uphold the narrative promise of "Gotta Make the NBA" and explore the basketball universe from three different perspectives: a young NBA hopeful desperate to escape the poverty around him, a current successful pro ballplayer, and a coach.
The "player on the come-up" stories have the most depth. "Material Mindstate" lays out this character's backstory most effectively: He plays in some local Oakland league and harbors dreams of going pro, but dreams don't keep the lights on. Soon, he's forced to sell drugs to fund all that time in the gym. "Pass the Roc" finds him getting some attention from scouts and trying to stay focused: On the court he's a team player ("I'm ballin' in the game without taking shots / I assist and I pass the rock"), but his off-court exploits threaten to take over ("Hitting bitches with the Glock like Raymond Felton / I bet she did something, I bet she hurt his heart / Balling in the game too hard in the dark").
"Hall of Fame" blurs the lines between the three arenas Lil B is addressing here—basketball, the drug game, and the rap game—by insisting that in each case, getting rich is definitely one goal, but not the ultimate goal: It's really about being remembered, about making an indelible mark on the world. The song also highlights one of the Based God's most underrated talents: perfectly matching his lyrics to the emotion of the music.
Rappers especially sometimes struggle with this, spinning a crack tale over a beat that calls for more sophisticated, introspective lyrics; N*E*R*D, a band I practically worship, are often guilty of what I've termed "getting the words wrong." Their "You Know What" is probably the biggest offender: a great song that would be infinitely better if it was about some real emotional pain and regret, instead of being some convoluted tale about cheating on your significant other. The earlier "Waiting for You" is the same way, wasting its epic potential on some weird story about a supernatural family fishing trip.
Lil B, by contrast, always lives up to the beat. As with Curren$y, you can tell in about 15 seconds whether you'll like the song or not based on how you feel about the beat. If it's good, you'll like what Lil B does with it. You never know where he's taking you, but he never steers you wrong.
Hoop Life's two other protagonists—the established player and the coach—aren't quite as interesting, but it's notable that the NBA-star songs don't take the simple "I'm balling, bitch!" tone you might expect. There's a celebratory aspect, sure, but they also hint at the darkness and alienation behind all the money, women, and drugs. "Good Day" is even suicidal; Lil B is so paranoid that he has to remind himself that staying alive is the best present he can giv himself. Whereas the coach stuff is just funny: Believe it or not, the Based God still pulls girls left and right while holding a clipboard.
Of course, it's next to impossible to stick to a single conceit across 33 songs, so we do get some Lil-B-as-Lil-B moments, too. The best is "Fuck KD," because obviously; we also get a Based God Curse update via "Lockdown": "Fuck KD, but I love the Thunder."
"NBA Stole My Swag" is important, too, albeit not exactly for the reasons he articulates. His beef with the NBA stems from the new shirseys nobody likes—he considers their snug fit a ripoff of his own tiny shirt movement. (In the Village Voice's Complete Guide to Understanding Lil B, they made his tiny pants one of their Based Key Terms: "Lil B wears tiny pants and tiny shirts because he is a fashion icon." Also, a search for "Lil B tiny shirt" calls up 210 results on Rap Genius.)
Regardless, you'll keep going back to the young-striving-baller songs. "You're Going to the League" marks the transition between Lil B the prospective hooper and Lil B the NBA star: It's mostly devoted to the haters and fake friends who gassed him up when he was doing well, were talking shit when he was on hard times, and generally were unsupportive of a young guy killing shit.
Sonically, the song is heavily indebted to the raunchy, minimalist ratchet sound of reigning West Coast king DJ Mustard—on almost half of Hoop Life's songs, you feel compelled to add his "Mustard on the beat, ho!" drop yourself. Lil B often starts trends himself, but playing with established styles is just as crucial to the Based God experience. He has made entire projects in the vein of Cash Money (Goldhouse), the Kanye/Just Blaze chipmunk soul era (The Basedprint 2), even the jazzy loops and depressive, obliquely introspective raps of early MF Doom (MF BASED). Here, he takes it back to his days with the Pack on "Clink Clink," goes down south on "Foul Out" (which might as well be called "Back That Azz Up 2014"), and even harkens all the way back to the Bomb Squad on "NBATV Commercial."
But the late-era G-funk and gruff vocal cadence of "You're Going to the League" will remind you of someone completely different: Tupac Shakur. He and Lil B have a lot in common: unparalleled productivity (it took 10 posthumous years to get through 'Pac's back catalog), the cult-like fan base, the iconic tattoos, the polarizing responses from the lyrics-or-bust crowd who prefer internal rhyme schemes to sheer emotive power. Oh, and the blatant hypocrisy: To paraphrase Jay Z, is it "Brenda's Got a Baby" or "Wonda Why They Call You Bitch"? Is it Lil B's infamous I'm Gay album or his taste for homophobic slurs?
Like it or not, the Based God is our 2Pac; scoff if you want, but he's clearly in the running as the most influential rapper of our time. He popularized the use of "swag" as an interjection. He invented the Cooking Dance, which can be found in any nightclub on Friday and Saturday nights, and also features as a prominent touchdown celebration on Sunday afternoons. (Related: The phrase, "Let that boy cook.") He started the whole celebrity-name-as-song-title movement: There is no "Tom Ford" without "Ellen Degeneres."
The Odd Future crew is full of admitted Based God disciples. The "cloud rap" sound A$AP Rocky turned into a career was created by Clams Casino, who got his start producing for Lil B. There is no Lord Flacko without the Based Lord. SpaceGhostPurrp started out explicitly based, then tried to distance himself, probably because he didn't want to acknowledge his debt. The most dissected, bashed, and praised rap album of the past few years, Kanye West's Yeezus, is basically Lil B's 6 Kiss with an unlimited budget. There's no "I Am A God" without the Based God's "I'm God." There's no "I'm In It" without "Violate That Bitch." Kanye was talking about his tight pants years after Lil B made his tiny pants an ad lib staple. That electro, industrial production style everyone raved about as evidence of the forward-thinking Kanye's genius? Lil B had been rapping on tracks like that for years.
Some even took his style whole cloth. Soulja Boy (at least theoretically) paid the man and brought him into his circle, but any post-"Crank That" song of his you've heard is probably an obvious, poor imitation of Lil B. Riff Raff is basically the white Lil B, with the wackiness and ignorance turned up to 11, and the positivity turned off. Others hide their homages a little better, only jacking his flow. (Wiz Khalifa is down with the Based God, though, so no harm, no foul.)
All that influence, all those mixtapes, all those videos, all that tweeting and Tumblring and meming is what makes being a Lil B fan so great. He is the quintessential modern artist, existing on every plane imaginable, usually out on the frontier before anyone else, blazing a trail hundreds of acts will eventually follow. It's why most new listeners at first question his sincerity, incredulous that a rapper spread so thin could be thought of so highly. It's also why, after fighting through that initiation period, his true fans quickly drop those concerns and simply enjoy the experience. He may be spread thin, but it's only to create infinite layers.
Image from Lil B's Instagram.
The Concourse is Deadspin's home for culture/food/whatever coverage. Follow us on Twitter:@DSconcourse.