Although New York hasn’t been the center—or even an especially noteworthy hub, for that matter—of rap music for over a decade, it still holds a special meaning. New York is the Mecca of rap, the fertile soil from which it sprung and where the golden age of hip hop blossomed. This is where Kool Herc spun back the breaks and where Rakim stumped for his preferred presidential candidate and where Nas peered out of his Queensbridge window, penning rhymes to capture the vibe that surrounded him. As the old heads and the true school fans and certain magazines and radio DJs will tell you, New York made hip hop what it is. And to some degree, every rapper who performs here has to reckon with that history, and with the way it’s stubbornly clung to as if it were the single moral and aesthetic lodestar from whose path the fallen genre has strayed.
Lil B the Based God played New York on Thursday, and the performance—which didn’t involve much in the way of actual performing and was instead much more of a DJ set, something of a surprise to the Based World denizens who showed up to jump around to “Violate that Bitch” and “Swag On My Dick” and “Justin Bieber”—was, more than anything else, about New York’s and Lil B’s places in rap, and what they have to do with each other. It was a strange, fascinating show.
Lil B, His Fans, And His Haters
There are a few different lenses through which Lil B is commonly seen and understood by rap fans. His most fervent detractors think of him as nothing more than a jester, a buffoon who has neither any appreciable rapping ability nor a governor that would dial back on the obscene number of songs and mixtapes and videos (and the tweets and retweets and Instagrams and memes that go with them) the perceived no-talent clown indiscriminately dumps online. To that group, Lil B is a joke, unworthy of carrying on hip hop’s proud lineage, and those who profess to like him do so out of nothing more than a sense of irony and/or faux high-minded contrarianism.
To committed Based God disciples, Lil B is the culmination of a number of musical and technological forces. He is a champion of the unlimited and omnivorous taste that arose amongst open-minded and curious music fans in the post-Napster world and a fearless experimenter who has dabbled in each and every facet of rap music, racing ever forward to explore new styles and techniques, constrained only by his own creativity and his drive to make something fun and positive and meaningful. His most famous songs—the high-energy cooking ones—are pretty directly descended from West Coast and Southern stylists, but he is very evidently inspired by and informed on all forms and eras of rap. For proof that Lil B loves, appreciates, and has been influenced by the very East Coast fount the Real Hip Hoppers want everyone to sip from, look no further than The Basedprint 2 and MF Based, which are extended exercises in playing with the styles of the artists those respective titles wink at, or his decision to pick ‘90s NYC rap legend Cormega to be one of his early collaborators. He is admittedly a hard artist to get into and follow, but if he is your shit, he is extremely your shit.
Then there are the more casual Lil B fans, who know him for his NBA curses on Kevin “The Servant” Durant and James Harden, for the cooking dance, and the Thank You Based God memes and the other catchphrases (Based god, fuck my bitch! Swag swag! Protect Lil B at all costs!) that have one way or another crossed over into the more general hip hop fan’s cultural consciousness. These people are barely invested in Lil B as a musical artist, and use him more as a vessel with which they signal their hipness, internet savviness, and fealty to the group of cool people online who know the right things. Think of practically any basketblogger who tweets “#TYBG” and desperately hopes someone asks them what that means, and you’ve got a pretty good image of this type of fan.
Representatives of each of these groups, along with Lil B himself and people concerned with what hip hop in New York truly means, man, piled into Manhattan’s Playstation Theater Thursday for a rap show. It began pretty much how someone familiar with Lil B and his co-headliner, the producer Clams Casino, would’ve predicted. After a set in which Clams played his own instrumentals and songs he’s produced for other rappers, Lil B made his way onstage and started running through some of his classic, Clams-produced songs.
The half-full-ish venue was excited for the Based God’s appearance and was into songs like “Motivation” and “I’m God” and the like, though the subdued nature of those more atmospheric tracks kept the energy fairly low starting out. More important than the songs themselves, though, were Lil B’s interstitial comments, where he’d regularly take a break between songs to announce, “This is real hip hop.” In light of how the rest of the night went, it was pretty clear that from the start of the show, Lil B’s performance was inspired by and in some ways a reaction to everything that phrase—real hip hop—means.
Lil B vs. Hip Hop
Real hip hop may as well be the slogan of New York rap. It is the refrain of those who most prize the stylings and values of ‘90s NYC hip hop, of lyricalness and soul samples and a narrow definition of expressed intelligence and consciousness. Talib Kweli is Real Hip Hop. 36 Mafia is Something Else.
Lil B, too, is Something Else. And while the crusaders for Real Hip Hop have in most respects lost the culture war, they haven’t retreated so far back as to have lost all their avenues of power and influence—especially not in the movement’s capital, New York. Lil B in particular has faced the wrath of this crowd, at one point painted as the very face of what is not Real Hip Hop. In part this is because he is genuinely and intentionally weird, but mostly it’s because his emphasis on how things sound at the expense of being lyrical, and how unashamed he is of producing work that doesn’t score highly in the rap traditionalist’s rigid grading rubric. (Great Lil B songs are great mostly because of how the sounds make you feel, not because of the what the words themselves mean, though it’s also important to note that he also can rap well in the traditional manner, and that the lyrics to many of his songs are some of the most honest and affecting you’ll find in music, period.)
Thus it’s functionally impossible to talk about who Lil B is and what he means without positioning him against the dominant narratives of his critics, almost as if you’re constantly defending his right to be who he is and fans’ right to value what it is he does. Lil B himself is almost certainly aware of this discourse, which surrounds the space in which he makes music, and his show was strong evidence that this is so. Lil B’s response to the oppressive force that is Real Hip Hop in New York was to try to out hip hop New York.
After Lil B ran through his Clams Casino songs and a couple more crowd pleasers, he pivoted the show, going from Lil B the rapper to Lil B the DJ. It soon became evident that his playlist was specifically aimed at NYC and the Real Hip Hop crowd. Lil B proceeded to play a nearly unending stream of New York rap, but without leaning on the most obvious, canonical artists and songs. He played AZ. He played The Lox. He played Papoose. He played non-Illmatic Nas, non-Reasonable Doubt and Blueprint Jay Z, non-The Infamous Mobb Deep, Pete Rock & CL Smooth, MF Doom, Raekwon, Dipset—an entire gamut of East Coast rap that evinced a serious engagement with the music, one that goes deeper the eight or nine albums that Rolling Stone will dutifully include in their list of The 84 Albums You Must At Least Pretend To Have Listened To And Loved If You Want To Feign Sophistication. Oh, and he played NSYNC.
The joy on his face when he ran through track after track, the way he’d cut the volume on the choruses and belt them out himself, the way he’d at times shout “If your DJ ain’t playing this in the club, they a bitch!” all demonstrated that the put together this set and these songs from a place of deep love. But the underlying conversation was clear, too: New York thinks he’s not Real Hip Hop, that he doesn’t know Real Hip Hop, and thus doesn’t come from the lineage of what rap really is; so Lil B set out to demonstrate that he loves New York rap just as much as, if not more than, anyone in New York. And at least on the evidence of Thursday, he was right.
For a few reasons, the majority of the attendees of the Lil B show probably left a little underwhelmed. Part of it is understandable. There really was confusion about what everyone was showing up for, with most people expecting a regular show and instead seeing what was essentially a guy up on stage with an aux cord plugged into his laptop, playing and rapping along with a bunch of his favorite songs.
In addition to that, the actual performances—along with the intro period, Lil B would intermittently interrupt his DJ set and rap a song or two of his own, either doing so over the tracks’ instrumentals or rapping along with the full song as it played behind him—weren’t very good. It was hard to hear both his raps and the beats sometimes, making it hard to tell what song he was performing; his energy didn’t consistently match that of the songs; and probably because of his poor breath control, he often couldn’t keep up with patterns and flows of his lyrics. All of these are perfectly legitimate reasons to have come out of the theater disappointed. Lil B shows are famous because of the intensity of his performance and how the crowd feeds it all right back to him. This was not that, so it’s understandable if fans weren’t entirely happy with how the night went down.
However, another reason why the show failed to click with many in the audience for long stretches is probably that Lil B’s Real Hip Hop set was actually too hip hop for New York—or this New York, at least. There were some but not all that many Task Force soldiers in attendance with an intimate familiarity with Lil B’s catalogue. (The bulk of that group was not coincidentally parked front and center, and were hopping and shouting along with Lil B for most of the night.) This wasn’t the super young, teeny-bopper crowd you’ll often see at his festival sets, nor was it the younger, blacker audience you’d typically find at an NYC rap show, like, for instance, the crowd that turned out for the Young Thug show at the same venue a few months back.
This, more than anything, struck me as a slightly older (for a Lil B show) audience of people who knew of Lil B, probably knew most of the words to “Like a Martian,” but still weren’t that deep into the Lil B experience—the kind of more casual rap heads who know what Real Hip Hop means and constitutes, but aren’t necessarily compelled to defend the concept. It seemed telling that the only moments the crowd as a whole was truly in the palm of Lil B’s hand were while he performed his biggest songs; when he played old Lil Jon and MF Doom songs; and at the very end of the set, when he invited half of the crowd onstage and dozens of people proceeded to jump about, stopping only to pose for selfies with the very obliging Based God. Those were the rare moments when what Lil B was doing and what the crowd was expecting met, and everything was good.
Because of this, Lil B’s efforts to prove his true hip hop head bonafides fell sort of flat, rhetorically speaking. The New York his set explicitly targeted—whether to bring on shared reverie with the old NYC deep cuts, or to show up by flexing his superior knowledge, or both—wasn’t in attendance. Instead he was up there playing the wrong songs for the wrong crowd who didn’t really know or like what was happening. While the institutional New York that avers the virtues of Real Hip Hop does still exist, even they have lost their intellectual hold over most of the people who show up for a Lil B show in the Playstation Theater in 2016. Thus, when Lil B teased/taunted the crowd at one point, shouting “Who knows about more rap than me?!?” the answer in that room on that night was always going to be, “Nobody.” And so whether or not his efforts to prove himself to people and a philosophy to which he should not be beholden to were successful ultimately couldn’t be decided.
Still, for those fans who do love both ‘90s rap and Lil B, and who more than anything else wanted to enjoy a night out in the presence of His Basedness, it was a lot of fun. Lil B showed up and tried to exorcise his Real Hip Hop demons through a séance with the ghosts of NYC rap’s past, and watching him do so was an endlessly interesting and entertaining experience. That he succeeded, if only by default, is probably proof enough that the New York of his imagination is still losing whatever relevance it once had.