It wasn’t obvious from the get-go, but by now it’s reasonably clear that Lil B wants to save rap. At first blush, there’s no one less qualified: He’s a social-media celebrity who tweets effusively to his fans, a swag-less MC with no discernible skill at rapping and no discernible interest in improvement. On I’m Gay (I’m Happy), Lil B is more likely to talk circles around himself than do anything like rapping. He sounds lost and unfocused, rambling through clunkers that would get a seventh-grade MC booed off the stage of a talent show. He says hilariously bad lines like he means them, and sounds tempted to laugh at some of his own despairing observations about life in the ghetto. He’s more meme than musician, and yet on the first track of the album he compares himself to Martin Luther King Jr. and claims he’s about to “go against everything you believe.”
Part of what makes Lil B so unpredictable is that he’s completely uninterested in the conventional industry pursuit of money, power, and fame. We can assume that I’m Gay (I’m Happy) wouldn’t have been a blockbuster even without Lil B’s active role in tanking its commercial prospects, though it’s funny to see how just how much delight his detractors take in repeating its abysmal sales (less than 2,000 copies in a week). Alienating title aside, Lil B dropped his album on a Wednesday night with no single and no promotion, then gave it away online the next day because he says he loves his fans even if they don’t have 10 dollars to spend on his work. Supposing an artist was to harbor the naïve perspective that music exists solely for self-expression, would we even be able to make sense of them? Lil B might be living proof that we couldn’t.
Promotion aside, no one could hear the music on I’m Gay (I’m Happy) and think it was created with radio play, or even cult-hit status, in mind. The Odd Future crew might reject many of commercial rap’s norms of evaluation, but they still observe a type of virtuosity in that their live shows are visceral, athletic performances meant to communicate rebellious authenticity. It’s very punk. But Lil B’s style is non-committal, more sloppy spoken word than rap, with beats that always sound cheap and amateurish. “Unchained” smolders with gothic cheese thanks to a sample of Gerard McMann’s “Cry Little Sister” (the theme to The Lost Boys), and it’s one of the better-sounding tracks on the album. And yet all of the tracks maintain a level of musicality, sounding busted and homespun but nonetheless compelling in the directness of their moods.
Based on the pair of ambient, soul-kissed tracks “Get It While Its Good” and “I Seen That Light,” one might suppose that Lil B relates to hip-hop with the same deconstructionist sensibility that Ariel Pink relates to classic pop. But the brunt of the material on I’m Gay (I’m Happy) indicates something more radical. For all his willfulness, Ariel Pink always writes with a clear appreciation of pop: It might be an aesthetic and political nightmare, but a hook is a thing of undeniable beauty. By contrast, there’s little evidence here that Lil B actually listens to much rap, classic or otherwise, and no reason to believe that nostalgia either motivates him artistically or interests him intellectually. em>I’m Gay (I’m Happy) isn’t sly and intertextual, it’s an alternate universe beholden only to its own laws.
Put differently, Lil B is less a postmodern indie sophisticate than a regular old minimalist. He strips every inessential aspect of the modern rap song (the guest spots, the punchlines, the expensive beats, the name-brand producer, the flows, the hooks), and in doing so makes the implicit contention that whatever makes rap music worth listening to remains even in their absence. For Lil B, the essence of rap isn’t really musical at all. Rap is given purpose in its claim to truth, and the extent to which we believe an MC is the only important measure of his powers. Lil B is calling rappers back to simple purposes: Do it for your fans, do it for yourself, but most of all, do it because you couldn’t do anything else. For that reason, I’m Gay (I’m Happy) can be both exhaustingly self-referential and as resolutely concerned with the truth as any Native Tongues classic.
Your typical conscious rapper—say, Talib Kweli or Blackthought—plays the part of the enlightened teacher, the Bodhisattva figure who has found his own way out of the ghetto, soul intact, but returns in order to lead those still caught in the trap. The premise of rap as consciousness-raising is that growing up poor and black in the inner city takes its most serious toll on the mind, and that living conditions in the ghetto are only as bad as they are because people can be conditioned to live in the ghetto. If other possibilities were brought into view, then the next generation of black youth would be significantly freer. I think Lil B is working from the same basic blueprint, except he’s not claiming any kind of transcendence. At one point, he claims he’s living in a computer.
Instead, Lil B portrays the confused adolescent for whom the hood and now the net are the only points of reference. Sometimes that means fritzing out into odd, memetic humor (“Girlfriend look like Ellen/Chain like Degeneres”), sometimes it means getting all ambient-existential about his place in the world (“Am I even a rapper anymore?”)—which makes it hard to tell if a track like “I’m Miley Cyrus” is a joke or an indication of an identity crisis. The character he’s been playing is a real oddball, one we’ve been encouraged to underestimate and brush off as overburdened with idealism and under-burdened with talent. I’m Gay (I’m Happy) is a sustained glimpse at that character’s soul, his capacity for feeling connected to the world and his longing for freedom. The simpering, piano-driven “Gon Be Okay” samples Obama’s soaring oratory circa 2008 and has Lil B earnestly testifying, “The world going through a critical change/I just want us to be okay.” In the same song, he defines a “façade” as “seeing water in the desert.” It sounds a lot like that weird blog post you ran across last week.
Only a few pieces of music each year surprise me like “I Hate Myself” did. The track starts as another digressive spoken-word piece, albeit one with an especially obnoxious track—a sizzurp-paced sample of the Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris.” But goofy social commentary (“Most people are divided up like its apartheid”) and vague exhortations to “break that mental blockage” lead to a stirring declaration: “I’m ready to give up my old thoughts /I’ma move past what I saw/I’ma do what I want and be happy/I’m not gonna rob or kill to survive/Everything I seen was a lie/I’m not ready to die/I love myself.” Of course, notes of self-acceptance are common enough in pop and rap, but in so deliberately revealing his awkward, unsexy, mostly unimpressive self, Lil B makes his outsider status real, and it’s for that reason that “I Hate Myself” earns its climactic affirmation in a way that songs like “Firework” or “Born This Way” don’t and can’t.
Serious Lil B observers—among them, GLAAD—have questioned the intentions behind the MC’s decision to name his record I’m Gay (I’m Happy); genuine commitment to the cause vs. empty publicity stunt has been the binary of choice. Early reviews of the album have not only upbraided Lil B for diluting his message of solidarity by adding the parenthetical subtitle, but advanced the criticism that, in terms of its content, the album has nothing to do with being gay. Maybe so. There’s certainly no mention of gay people, but there’s much in Lil B’s message that can resonate with people who’ve been made to feel ashamed of their sexuality. To the ears of this gay hip-hop fan, “I need to rewrite my history because I hate myself” feels closer to the truth than “Words can’t bring us down.” Where Gaga sings, “Just love yourself and you’re set,” Lil B’s response is something like: “I can’t, yet, but I’m working on it.”
And that’s a reply that could come from many mouths, many of them, for what its worth, white and straight and in crucial respects privileged. Taken at his word, Lil B is rapping on this album to help poor black kids realize that “the hood is a lie.” But as a scene in the ongoing Lil B show, I’m Gay (I’m Happy) makes an even more important statement. My favorite line from Emerson is the one where he tells us not to doubt that all men have sublime thoughts. I hear I’m Gay (I’m Happy) as an album with a thesis, an argument that for all our bickering and chattering, for all our soul-destroying addiction to Internet junk, we’re still capable of sublime thoughts. We can be as enamored of our hi-tech toys and hardly comprehensible pop culture as Lil B apparently is and still devote serious quantities of emotional energy to answering the distress signals we’re constantly sending to ourselves and the people who make up our communities.
Up to his point, Lil B’s antics have made him hip-hop’s answer to abstract expressionism, heralded as a genius by a few kindly interpreters, but greeted with hostility by those inclined to think they’re being had. He’s a fringe figure by his own design, though he seems convinced that other rappers will come around to his way of seeing things. A song called “The Wilderness” ends with an oddly pedantic demand for respect, Lil B reminding the next generation of MCs to clear the copyrights before they sample his shit. He might have a point. Then again, Chuck D famously predicted that we’d be twisting to the Bomb Squad by 1995. We hip-hop fans have never been terribly fast learners.