What is based may never die, but rises again, baser and stronger.
Lil B’s second full-length mixtape, Black Ken, truly deserves all the accolades it will doubtlessly not receive. This is to be expected. The very nature of Black Ken precludes laurels. It is an album made in stark contrast to the ontology of the industry it rages against. It is a refutation and a celebration of all the qualms rap artists and their fans have about this system we have patronized – quiet little fears about pimping and commodification that go unspoken in the night. Black Ken is steeped in the horrid ugly lies (and truths) that have damned or damaged the careers of others who endeavored to expose them. It is the album Kanye West spent fifteen years trying to make.
This The Intro
Technically categorized as his 51st mixtape [his two most celebrated others being #27 God’s Father (2012) and #36 ObamaBasedGod (2012)], Black Ken contains twenty-seven tracks, all produced by Lil B himself, and features only one other artist, ILoveMakonnen on “Global.” Although impressive, this show of self-reliance is not uncharacteristic of the BasedGod. He has long been his own producer and minimized the appearance of others on his releases, though notably not so much with past mixtapes. “It’s the master of disaster, not a slave master / I own my own masters so I’m a real rapper,” he states on “Wasup JoJo,” a dispassionate screed against all those so-called rappers who don’t produce their own beats. This penchant for autonomy takes on new meaning in Black Ken, an album in which Lil B ponders the state of his industry with overt personal bias, but also with an omniscient objectivity. It’s just Lil B here, but it’s Lil B on a grander scale than ever before.
Black Ken mainlines three themes, each more ambitious than the last. Lil B goes after his lyrical imitators and icons in the same breath, tackling the uninspired state of modern hip-hop and glorifying the potential purity of the art-form in “The Real Is Back” and “Hip Hop.” He contemplates the heuristics of making rap music, condemning the whole scheme as false and self-aggrandizing; “Go Stupid Go Dumb” and “Berkeley,” among others. Lastly, Lil B breaks down three chief, problematic master narratives of hip-hop: (1) the commodification of black men, (2) the deification of money, and the (3) deeply misogynistic fear of white women’s’ power to destroy black men. For these, see “Still Run It,” “Ain’t Me,” “Raw,” “West Coast,” and “Rawest Rapper Alive.”
The Exasperation of Based
In a 2010 interview for Complex that has since been deleted, Lil B defined “Based” as:
“Based means being yourself. Not being scared of what people think about you. Not being afraid to do what you wanna do. Being positive. When I was younger, based was a negative term that meant like dopehead, or basehead. People used to make fun of me. They was like, ‘You’re based.’ They’d use it as a negative. And what I did was turn that negative into a positive. I started embracing it like, ‘Yeah, I’m based.’ I made it mine. I embedded it in my head. Based is positive.”
If that seems a little… well, stupid… that’s because it is. Whether or not Lil B has always intended his woo-woo philosophy to juxtapose the cutthroat nature of diss-rap is debatable, but the end result here is that the self-proclaimed paragon of Calvinist fluff-tracks spends the bulk of Black Ken pulling the medium down, brick-by-brick. If Based was ever about love, on Black Ken, it has been subverted and repurposed. Only a rapper such as Lil B, stripped down and simplistic to the monosyllabic extreme, has the right to hold up a mirror to hip-hop and proclaim, “You’re ugly as hell and you don’t matter anymore” while still preaching good vibes.
On “The Real Is Back,” B raps: “On the cover of the XXL, with Kendrick Lamar / And I went right back to the hood / Cookin’ dope like a real nigga should.” This sort of plaintive, matter-of-fact reading of hip-hop stereotypes is the quintessential B. There is none of the heated, thick-tongued cadence of the cited Lamar, or even the haughty holier-than-thou breathiness of Kanye, or the deep-larynx grumblings of Migos and other trappers. Other than occasionally invoking the proto-industrial raspiness of Shaggy and Sean John, Lil B stays monotone throughout.
Lil B is blunt and pithy. It’s a hallmark of good deconstructivism: the best way to break down and examine the phenomenology of a system – in this case, hip-hop and the corresponding ‘industry’ – is to demonstrate its baseline components in a non-decorous fashion. This reveals their inherent uselessness, and exposes how the structures that bind them create the real meaning. Keep the message simple to emphasize the medium. Without the sheen of million-dollar production and hyper-charged pop-culture context, the stereotypes of rap – rappers cook dope, rappers do anal, rappers f*ck underage girls – these things are exposed as manipulative facets of the industry. These are phenomena that help market black men. If the Based God reimagined as a cheap plastic “Ken” doll on the mixtape-cover didn’t give it away, well, there you go.
Lil B seemingly pays homage to the noble roots of his genre in “Hip Hop,” but this too is a scheme. “Remember when I was younger, I always loved music / So now it’s an honor to write and produce it,” B opens, and later on: “To be a rapper is an honor / Enlighten the people and you can let they mind prosper / Because ain’t nothin’ cool about wastin’ your time.” These generic readings of hip-hop as a dogmatic force for good in the lives of young people are a staple of meta-hip-hop albums. Rappers love to rap about rap. Kanye has done this ad naseum on his last few records, Biggie twisted it to encompass the rap lifestyle as well as the rap art-form, MF Doom mastered it, and Kendrick did it to some success on To Pimp a Butterfly. Coming from Lil B, however, it sounds reductive and almost quaint. The Based God is going through the motions and making it painfully apparent that these quotidian musings of rap are embroiled in expectation. You’re making a rap album? Better have a song thanking your forebearers.
Here, though, B again exposes the lie behind the sentiment by rapping with objectivity. He raps about expanding minds, about honor, about achieving a childhood dream. At the same time, however, he raps about the unattainability of this venture; “I’m a real MC, no, I’m not a phony / I take pride in my craft, took two years off to perfect my pen.” Lil B acknowledges that ‘phonies’ are far more common in hip-hop than not. For an industry staked on the promise of self-empowerment and growth, hip-hop seems to churn out more hacks and wannabees with every passing album a ‘real’ rapper drops to condemn them. It’s a tentpole of the genre. Lil B knows this. He exploits the trope of criticizing hip-hop as tropey.
Performance and Performative
Lil B intersperses several “Skits” throughout Black Ken. These are labeled as such: “Pretty Boy Skit,” “Mexico Skit,” et cetera. By opening acknowledging these tracks as sketches – fictions, in other words – Lil B highlights the performative nature of rap music. Despite all his aspirations to meaningful artistry, Lil B is as much a cog in the industry as he is a passive observer of it. In the most telling of these, “Pretty Boy Skit,” B is accosted by an endearing fan (Lil B plays all of the characters in these sketches, speaking with a high-pitched affectation when acting as the stooge) who says, “I really want you to start doing that Pretty Boy music that you made man, you know, you changed the game,” to which Lil B responds, “You know it’s all good, I got this extremely rare collectible art, why don’t you check that out and I’ll drop something for you.”
Lil B emphasizes the transactional nature of rap while simultaneously criticizing it for being overly performative. On “DJ BasedGod” he raps: “I scratch and I rap / I rap for the scratch / It’s a dog-eat-dog world not the cat in the hat.” The BasedGod duly performs his duty to his fans by going back to the “Pretty Boy Swag” sound of Soulja Boy that Lil B co-opted and satirized back in 2013. The next track after “Pretty Boy Skit” on Black Ken is “Young Niggaz,” a low-fi rager geared toward the ultra-misogynistic hedonism of “Pretty Boy” (“I will die with thirty bitches on my dick / a hundred bitches on my dick, thirty bitches on my dick”) music that B has spent a career deconstructing. This stricture against the capitalist dogma and the false-anarchism of hip-hop comes to a head during the final two tracks on the mixtape: “Show Promoter Skit” and “Live from the Island – Hawaii.” In “Show Promoter,” that same nasally-voiced sycophant calls up ‘BasedWorld Records’ :
Caller: “Yeah I wanna book Lil B for a show in Hawaii.”
Lil B Representative: “Yeah – “
Caller: “Hawaii, I wanna book him for a show.”
Representative: “Yeah, the Based God would love to come to Hawaii, I’ll send him this message – ”
Caller: “How much?”
Representative: “ – and will get back to you shortly – ”
Caller: “How much is it?”
Representative: “Talk soon –”
Cue the next track. Sure enough, Lil B is in Hawaii. The muffled roars of an ostensibly packed ‘stadium’ play from a soundboard while Lil B rounds out his ‘show,’ as if the entire preceding mixtape had been just another performance for a sea of exotic party-goers in some ludicrously tropical locale. The song mostly consists of Lil B hype-manning himself, whoo-ing a couple of times, and reminding the crowd, “We turnt up!!” Lil B chooses to conclude Black Ken with a not-so-friendly reminder that he is an object. The rapper is a chiseled statue mounted on a plinth, to be sold-and-re-sold at auction to the highest bidder, churning out nonsensical pump-up explicatives for a sea of rabid buyers.
Racism and the Hyper-Masculine
This right here is the root of Black Ken. Lil B goes after three rotten pillars of modern mainstream hip-hop: the act of turning black men into objects, the wealth-based value system, and, of course, the ingrained misogyny. Kendrick has recently (and famously) hinted at a pejorative stance toward these fatal flaws in “Humble,” in which he rages against the undeserved arrogance of rappers and their kingly attitudes toward women. Lil B is far less subtle but no less effective.
It bears mentioning that the objectification of black men and the violent misogyny of hip-hop go hand-in-hand. The portrayal of black men as violent predators, especially toward white women, stems from racist characterizations of hyper-masculine black culture – a black culture built almost entirely in opposition to the deliberate economic genocide done to black people since Reconstruction. Hip-hop is damnably misogynistic because young black men face untoward racism and discrimination from white employers, from white-owned prisons, from white politicians, from white journalists, indeed from society in general, which is run by white people. Young black men were forced to construct a feudal value system centered around the accumulation of wealth and women.
It’s a vicious circle: society limits the social mobility of black men by reason of their violent “nature,” and so the few black men who manage to succeed along the paths tolerated by white culture (i.e. hip-hop, fashion, and sports) respond by constructing a value system of pussy and power – ideas easily marketable to a community of young men for whom even the notion of material success seems as unattainable as the stars. Then, the white oligarchy uses the apparent glorification of violence by black culture to justify their barring society’s gates to black men, and the cycle continues. This is not even to mention the far-worse crimes done to women of color, who are brutalized and marginalized by white and black misogyny both.
So where does Lil B factor into all this? Most obviously, it’s in the many Emmett Till references peppered throughout Black Ken. The mere evocation of Emmett Till conjures the complex confluence between the fear of feminism and demonization of black men. People will often make exaggerated Emmett Till comparisons when discussing what Taylor Swift did to Kanye, for example, forgetting that men responsible for lynching Emmett Till were just that: men. This is not to say that white women are innocent, but merely that conservative men in the South during the early 20th century had to contend with a new terror on top of their existing insecurities about black empowerment: the feminist movement. To kill two birds with one stone, they pitted their apeish caricatures of black men against their innocent images of women, joining their newfound fear of liberated women ‘miscegenating’ with their deep-rooted racism toward blacks. Lil B highlights this scapegoating of black men as corruptive influences upon women with his frequent references to Emmett Till, but he rises above the linear reading of the Emmett Till murder as a simple instance of white women fueling the fires of white man’s racism.
Black Ken is a ruthless album. Ignoring for a second that more than a few beats on this thing actually fucking kick (“DJ BasedGod,” “Go Stupid Go Dumb,” “Turn Up,” “Produced by the BasedGod Intro”), the thematic undercurrent of Black Ken is the type of nuanced high-art shit that Kanye West built a career out of imitating. Pitchfork is likely sleeping on this enough that it’ll get some empty “Most Underrated Album of 2017” nods in a month or so, but the summer’s biggest drop will ultimately pass cold from this world. Though who cares about the “industry response?” It’s Lil B. He never has.