MF Based / Rain in England Mixtape
By Clayton Purdom | 6 October 2010
Lil B has gotten a lot of looks, as of late, and my gut reaction: this is fine. It follows a certain narrative we are used to, where hip-hop’s avant garde of low-brow abstraction edges its way toward mainstream acceptance. Nobody thought in 2008, after all, that Lil Wayne’s ascendancy was the creation of an archetype, but hip-hop just goes, sometimes. The blog-tape phenom is now as deeply entrenched in hip-hop lore as the triple-time battle rapper. We are now accustomed to some mealy mouthed mixtape emcee shocking the hip-hop cognoscenti; we expect online types to clamor both for and against said emcee while said emcee digs in, eventually producing a mixtape that is (rightly or not) categorized as a magnum opus; we loudly anticipate said emcee’s struggles to make a major-label breakthrough. “Lemonade” was Gucci’s Carter 3 (2008) moment; Flockaveli may be Waka Flocka’s O.R.A.N.G.E. (2010); thinking man’s archetype Wale looped back on About Nothing when his major label step-up went nowhere. We can draw lines as high as Drake and as low as Big Sean; the prevalence of this narrative has helped create a climate wherein something like the celestially low-brow brilliance of Soulja Boy’s “Turn My Swag On” might occur. This is a good thing.
And so we have Lil B, the latest innocently named emcee to blow up your RSS feed, burbling to attention, and I too have slithered to Datpiff tapes and to his blithely NSFW website, and have come back a little surprised. Because Lil B—and I’ll happily eat these words if history proves me wrong—is the first of these rappers to be just, like, not very good. And that’s at his best. At his worst, he’s beneath analysis, but I’ll get to that in a minute. It’s not that he’s not lyrical or he doesn’t fit into my stodgy paradigm of what hip-hop can sound like, two arguments lobbed between hip-hop’s low- and high-brow camps online (say, Hipinion and OKP, respectively). It’s just that he’s not interesting, at all, really, and that this lack of talent seems inversely proportionate to public interest in him. His strangeness is aggressive but it feels calculated, as though he’s fitting himself neatly into the blog-rap archetype rather than fitting into it naturally.
Lil B, a onetime member of the barely heard Pack, stands in stark contrast to his former producer Young L, who indulges in furiously misogynistic party rap on the new L-E-N. B is a seemingly Pitchfork-approved art rapper, his tapes full of gushing paeans to women, to family, to softcore drugs, and to God. His “based” style carries with it an almost embarrassingly confessional timbre, flying way off tempo and pitch when excited and rarely seeming to care what “sounds” good. The beats themselves are all cracked drywall, awful shit, but Gucci taught us to relish such filth, right? Still, B feels like a direct affront to mixtape Gucci, who cobbles together thunderous burners from the sparest of beats whereas B cobbles together only a joke-y, unsatisfying sense of bizarreness. Lacking Wayne’s brain-melting micro-literature or any of the seismic drops of Gucci’s crew, Lil B seems to be getting by mostly on this weirdness, which distinguishes his appeal as one not to rap fans but to only those of eccentricity: we envision Wayne Coyne’s huge vagina, Kevin Barnes’s dissonant, black transsexualism. For people who enjoy laughing at musicians, particularly rappers, B’s appeal must be absolute.
Decidedly apart from that camp, I must turn to the actual music, of which Lil B—eagerly fulfilling a prerequisite for prolificacy—has obliged with two new mixtapes. Each fits neatly into our expectations of a cutting-edge emcee. The MF Based tape taps into a notion of the crazy mixtape rapper as a self-referential über-fan (think Weezy confessing his undying love to Amerie on Da Drought 3 ). It’s all very LOL, especially the cover, but the mixtape itself is largely damning. Billed as freestyles, the generous blank spaces in his flow sound surprisingly okay over old hard-knock Primo and Doom beats, but a lot of that is probably because it’s Primo and Doom. Mostly Lil B sounds like a teenager taking his first turn at the mic. On “Devil Song” we get the off-the-dome likes of “You don’t wanna fuck with boss / Have’em seein’ the cross / Looking like lacrosse / Feelin’ like rugby,” and so on: all the appeal of a pizza delivery boy that just saw 8 Mile for the first time.
Much more attention-getting has been Lil B’s ambient mixtape Rain in England, an effort which doesn’t seek so much to invert hip-hop as to merely slander it. On “Love is Strange” he admits his plans to “show you how much of a rebel” he is, and that’s as close to a raison d’etre as one will find here. Drums, the pure invariable lifeblood of hip-hop, are nowhere to be found, and Lil B sounds appropriately lost, gurgling Richard Bach koans over diffuse synth washes. Each song fades to a twinkling close, a new one fades into twinkling being, and Lil B’s got a brand new bag of starlight to sprinkle over it all: the Kahlil Gibran Earth day ponderings of “Earth’s Medicine,” the notion of dreams on “Just Dreams,” all women on “All Women,” and so ever onward. His tone stays at a Weezy tremble, except when he takes off singing; on “My Window Sill,” he melodically approximates the sound of a dog attacking a squeak toy. Pinning too much loathing on Lil B for this funfetti cumshot of a record would be like lambasting Wayne for Rebirth: these missteps are part of the archetype, part of the myth. But the difference is that at Wayne’s best he is one of the most vivid rappers on the planet, whereas at B’s best he is simply weird in a different way, weird over different beats. The ambient taking those beats’ place here is Mark Frost-lite, lacking any of his evocative tonal work but handily emulating one or two of his presets.
It’s worth noting that the frontier Lil B’s pursuing is one of 2010’s most interesting, finding a common ground between radio-ready hip-hop and utter abstraction. And it’s being explored to fascinating ends in the drag of Salem or the screwed-up mixtape work of CFCF, wherein we find Aaliyah set intoxicatingly against the theme from Twin Peaks. There are no such stunning insights on Lil B’s two newest mixtapes, only stupidity worse than the Internet could’ve ever anticipated. Rain in England is probably the new Antoine Dodson, just as, I’m thinking, Lil B hoped. “It’s like I’m married, I’m watching bloggers heavily,” he admits on his best track, the hauntingly self-aware “Age of Information.” Later on the same track he laments, “I feel the Internet has ruined the human race.” You and me both, dude. I wish that the emcee of that track—self-aware, insightful, and hewing to the goddamn drums of the track—were around more. Instead, we have this Lil B: one who might rage against the mores of the Internet but one who also thrives exclusively within its glib, venomous thrall. This could of course be the modern paradox. But it’s also why we have shit like an ambient rap record.