Lil B, the heavily tattooed Berkeley, California rapper with a gleaming grill and oversized earrings, entered the hip-hop game in 2006 as part of Bay Area rap group The Pack.
Over the last three years he's garnered a tremendous Internet following, popularizing the words “swag” and “based,” the latter an amorphous, catchall term that essentially means being yourself, doing what you want, and being proud of it.
Having recorded and released more than 40 projects and over 1,000 songs, he was the subject of all manner of NPR think piece and critical over-analyzation when he first gained popularity in 2011. It was, to say the least, vexing.
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Now that the dust has settled, most critics have moved on. However, it's become increasingly clear that Lil B is one of the most important rappers of the past few years. He's influenced just about everyone who's doing anything interesting in hip-hop right now.
As laid out by Jeff Weiss and MC Nocando on their excellent Shots Fired podcast, we live in a “post-based” world, one where Lil B's influence looms large, even if his output is often mediocre. Rapper Speak, a guest on the episode, talks about how Kreayshawn (for whom he wrote “Gucci Gucci”) took much of her sensibilities from fellow Bay Arean Lil B, and his success also clearly paved a path for currently-popular rappers including Riff Raff, Trinidad James and A$ap Rocky. Oh, and let's not forget Odd Future and Kendrick Lamar, who owe him a debt as well.
Somewhat akin to the Velvet Underground in their time, Lil B is not mainstream-famous, but has affected many who are. Having never had a major record deal or a hit radio single, he's forgone labels and made music however the hell he wanted to. Even if it's crappy rock or crappy classical. Or a crappy song with his cat.
While he clearly has an ear for beats — and has introduced now sought-after producers like Clams Casino — his songs are largely filled with (literally) off-beat freestyles and oft-repeated non-sequiturs like “Bitches suck my dick cause I look like J.K. Rowling.” Interspersed are shouts of his now-ubiquitous catchphrases, like “swag.”
Even those who seem to like him, like critic Jayson Greene, have described his delivery as “artless” and “fumbling.” (Even his most passionate early advocate, Cocaine Blunt's Andrew Noz, wanted nothing to do with “California Boy.”) Given the breadth of Lil B's output, it's not surprising that much of his music is insufferable. “In Lil B's Basedworld,” writes Mike Powell, “quantity is quality, because quantity is evidence of a continuous and Zen-like passion for the present.”
Said passion for the present, and his somewhat courageous disregard for more traditional hip-hop styles and typical lyrical tropes (including, say, likening himself to Miley Cyrus), have inspired any number of rappers in recent years to take a page from Lil B's gospel, whether consciously or not.
Perhaps the most direct successor is Riff Raff, the cartoonish white rapper recently signed to record label Mad Decent. He offers vivid, comedic quotables in an affected southern twang and releases videos almost constantly. He owes his throw-shit-against-the-wall, ultra-viral style to Lil B, and has collaborated with him as well.
While a number of more-polished songs have shown that Lil B can occasionally rap well, he often chooses not to. And that, for better or worse, has paved the road for other MCs who lack a traditional skill set. Take leopard-skin print wearing rapper Trinidad James, whose annoying and hypnotic single, “All Gold Everything,” essentially scored him a record deal with Def Jam. He essentially took Lil B's rough prototype and smoothed out the edges, including in the production.
Then there's one of the biggest rappers of the moment, Harlem's A$AP Rocky, whose big budget debut Long Live A$ap came out last week. Having referenced Lil B and worked with Clams Casino, he has reworked, refined, and expounded upon the based aesthetic with greater commercial success than anyone else.
As gimmicky as he initially seemed, it now feels quite likely that, 20 years from now, folks will still be talking about Lil B and his influence. This could well happen even if he never releases another album, though that's unlikely. In fact, one suspects he'll have something new out by the time we finish typing this sentence.