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How Lil B became a tastemaker in hip-hop (despite trolling the culture for over a decade)

Trey Alston

 // May 14, 2018

Artist // Instagram

George Berkeley was an Irish philosopher responsible for the theory of "immaterialism," a lesser-known conjecture that says no to the existence of material substance and says that objects such as tables and lights are ideas, not existing unless they're perceived. In truth, Berkeley sounds like the progenitor of wide-eyed, insouciant stoners as we know it; a portrait of him, painted by Scottish-American artist John Smybert in 1727, renders him a rotund fellow, rosy cheeks, a low brow, and smug smile, as if he's knowingly trolling his fellow braniacs. While his name is lost in modern circles outside of extra credit assignments for entry-level Philosophy classes, his prestige and mindframe lives on in Berkeley, California, the city named after him.

Berkeley sits decrepitly on the east shore of the San Francisco Bay and is home to an expansive socially liberal network. It's probably because of the great African-American migration to the city in the 1940s — then, after the war, protests in the 1950s and 60s saw student activism further blazing the city's social liberation. Today, Berkeley is a safe haven for liberty and artistic integrity. Through its trials and tribulations, it survives as one of the more popular Californian locales that remains perched on the tongues of the worldwide citizen.

It's here that Brandon McCartney roams the streets like an all-knowing demiurge, hugging the people, providing blessings to the misfortunate, and giving away free art. At the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive earlier this month, McCartney gave away a collection of personal art, revealing in an interview with The FADER that the reason for his decision was for people to "continue to be creative and to value creativity." Appearing in a sherbet-orange suit blazer, faux dreads (undoubtedly inspired by Fetty Wap's plucky choice), and a long, kimono-adjacent shirt holier than anything you've warn recently, McCartney was the embodiment of the modern "hippie" if there ever was one. Not too long ago, in another lifetime, McCartney roamed the streets as Lil B, The Based God, the underdog's rapper. Now, he's the people's champion.

George Berkeley's incessant weirdness defines Lil B's aesthetic. A human Rube Goldberg machine if there ever was one, sometimes you want to take him apart to see how he ticks, then put him back together again and send him on his way. For the better of ten years, The Based God has been the most influential rapper in the game; if he's not on your Mt. Rushmore of Rap, try thinking outside of the box. An expert troller, inconspicuous genius, and decent lyricist, B embodies the incongruence of post-Wayne rap in such a way that his absence would be sorely missed. Even when he disappears for endless stretches before arising back with another song or scheme, his presence is felt. He's the game's loving uncle, yet prone to talking in inaudible whispers, so you wonder, in the back of your mind, the state of his mental health. But then he hits you over the head with something so brilliant, you laugh and wonder what you were even worried about in the first place.

Pretend it's 2010. Kanye West's backpack rap has exploded into the excessive testerone-peddling showcase we know it to be today .  GOOD Music's label releases were leading up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. In the midst of Kanye and company shepherding the culture into a direction of black brilliance, a morbid wolf appeared on the horizon. The Based God entered into the game a member of The Pack, a Berkeley-based collective whose eclectic zaniness made them the cream of the Bay Area's crop. He broke away after the group's gold turned to dust, refusing to throw away what they'd built for mediocrity. This was 2009, but by mid-2010, B had recorded over 1500 songs. One of that initial batch, "Wonton Soup" would come to take the internet by storm.

This was his reintroduction into the limelight by way of ridicule. "Wonton Soup" was mind-numbingly simple; whatever it was, B believed it to look like wonton soup. He parks his car, he copulates with your girlfriend, the locution on this track was unlike anything the world had heard in recent years. The dance craze of the mid-2000s had largely evaporated, and B's delivery was reminiscent of the parodical Afroman hit about the effects of smoking marijuana. One look at the video for "Wonton Soup" may have led to viewers making the same assumption. The simple visual featured B with his eyes dangerously low, going through the emotions. Was he for real? Was the entire ruse an elaborate joke?

As the public began to ponder, more B began to leak out. His debut album Rain in England hit stores on September 21 of that year. He signed with Amalgam Digital in December. His star power grew out of defiance to his aesthetic. For as many people that punched him in the face, or made videos angrily disclaiming B as the death of rap music, double were proclaiming themselves as die-hard fans, apocalyptic followers latching onto their savior who'd lead them into the next life of hip-hop. In the space of a little over a year, B was the hottest thing on the web. You could laugh at his juvenile flow, deer-in-headlights gaze into the camera, and stream-of-conscious lyrics that regularly broke the fourth wall — but what couldn't be doubted was his presence, the way that, when he came on camera, time stopped and his puerile sermon began. His videos may have lacked the cinematic flare of a Kanye West, or even a young J. Cole, but there was an authenticity present in his alleyway recordings that made them all the more watchable.

Over time, B's antics left an impression on the industry by far. His at-the-time controversial album I'm Gay (I'm Happy) didn't make the splash he predicted, even if he rapped with a zest that he'd never tapped into prior. He released tape after tape, featuring song after song of the same formulas : he was a person of public interest because of a similar activity he participated in; he questioned the workings of the world in a faux-conscious lyrical offering; or he channeled a different culture of the world to switch it up (sort of like Drake is doing now, but I digress). His prominence swayed slightly, but rappers took up the task of keeping him relevant.

To some degree, every rapper after 2011, for the most part, has credited Lil B as a huge inspiration of theirs. Kendrick Lamar shouted out the Based God on multiple occasions over the years. A$AP Rocky has always been vocal about Lil B's importance in his artistry. Tyler The Creator, for what it's worth, has acknowledged B's relevancy, even if his Odd Future crew had bad blood with him. While B was rapidly firing himself into public obscurity with endless releases, those in the know, on the come up, watched his blueprint and ran with it. Then, when they got into positions of power, they returned the love that B showed the public so many years ago.

If you didn't realize it before, when you see guys like Diddy, Juicy J, and E40 showing love to the Based God, you start to get a grasp of how big he is. Underneath the superficial collapse of his popularity over the years, a strong underground base of fans known as the Task Force have held it down for him on social media fronts. With both celebrity and public arenas in the headlock, B's been able to sleep peacefully under the stars, when he wants. His influence has lived on through the cloud rap era he helped usher in, popularizing women's clothes on rappers that Young Thug would go on to champion, and the shameless warbling that's become the cornerstone of Future's success. While he may not have realized it, over the years, through his influence with both the big guys and the average joes, along with his wide scope of rap styles, B became one of the game's leading tastemakers without actively participating in it.

Now, his transition from student to master of the game has been completed. In a recent interview with XXL, B revealed that his new role in the game is to bridge the generational gap that separates the new school and old school of hip-hop from coming together. "My place in hip-hop is really to just connect and show positivity," he said. "Put my vibe out there." As he sits upon his perch and surveys the game, showing love to the new generation and giving away free art, the mystique that he came into the game with and reveled in over all of these years has all but evaporated. In its place is an intense admiration, fueled by the slow-burning charismatic build-up that had to be unintentional. But now that it's here, he knows it. It's why he can get fake dreads and smile about it. Why he can get jumped by rappers in secret, then go on stage afterwards and tell the world about it — then, forgive them in the same breath. It takes a special someone, an imperfect replica of Siddhartha Gautama, to control this Zen, this happiness. He's done it, now he can sit back and plot his next move.

The best part about it? With Lil B, there's no telling. He's recently revealed that his next project, Platinum Flame, has officially been completed. But don't get your hopes up — Black Ken, announced over seven years ago, just came out in late 2017. B could hop back in the art circuit before gifting it to the public, or he could go give out life-changing lectures like Iron Man in Captain America: Civil War. Whatever he decides to do, he can rest easy knowing that his transformation from industry troll to hip-hop legend has happened without flaw. You don't have to tell anyone to put some respeck on his name — it's something of a given now.



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