[Editor's note: Oddball Berkeley rapper Lil B suddenly released a classical music album under his “The Basedgod” moniker last week, called Choices and Flowers. Since no one in rap really knows what to make of it, we assigned West Coast Sound classical music critic Christian Hertzog to review it.]
It's nothing new for popular musicians to venture into classical. Ragtime king Scott Joplin wrote two operas; George Gershwin crossed over from Broadway to create several bona fide masterpieces; jazz composers such as Ellington and Brubeck have written for orchestras; and plenty of rock stars have given it a go.
With Choices and Flowers Lil B has sought to join this elite-ish group, producing the entire instrumental album. But is it actually classical, as he claims? Well, to paraphrase Senator Lloyd Bentsen during the 1988 vice-presidential debate, I've written about, performed, and even composed classical music for most of my life, and Mr. B, your album is not classical music.
iTunes offers the first clue, categorizing Flowers and Choices as “New Age,” and indeed that characterization makes sense, what with the long synthesizer pads intertwining and dissolving away. The entire album is multitracked synthesizer with no rapping or vocals. (The video above, for “All My Life,” is not actually on the album, but was posted to YouTube as a teaser of sorts for the project.)
Like most New Age synthesizer music, Flowers and Choices was improvised rather than notated. Improvisation can play a role in classical music, sure, but rarely to the degree that the entire composition is made up on the spot.
Lil B's system of improvisation is, to put it charitably, uninteresting. In fact, you could make it yourself, with no training whatsoever! Here's how: Put your fingers on 4 or 5 adjacent white keys and leave them there for the whole piece. Play 3 or 4 descending patterns. Never mix up the order of the notes — always play 3 or 4 consecutively falling white notes. Don't repeat any rhythms, always vary them. Don't play in any recognizable meter. Just let the notes slowly and unpredictably fall. Every once in a while, record a track with your hand on a different set of 4 or 5 adjacent white keys. Even more infrequently play a couple of black notes.
Lil B favors the pitches C-B-A-G. A lot. For the first 16 tracks, that's the melody you hear in each song, for a total of 86 minutes. (If you don't read music, sing the first four notes of the Christmas carol “Joy to the World” or the Meow Mix jingle — that's what C-B-A-G sounds like). There's no sense of closure to any track, as each one cuts off unexpectedly.
And yet, my editor insisted on a short review of each work on the album. So here goes:
1.”I Made the Right Choice”
On the album opener, B selects a string pad patch to play the notes C-B-A-G.
2. “Lessons From the Wind”
On this track, B plays the notes C-B-A-G over and over on an oboe patch, with a clarinet trill interjecting at random places.
3. “Walking Through Berkeley”
I heard synthesized strings playing C-B-A-G.
4. “My Mistakes”
C-B-A-G playing repeatedly.
5. “New York I'm Home”
C-B-A-G on an electric piano patch.
6. “Where Are You Going”
Filter-sweep patches and clarinet patches playing C-B-A-G.
7. “Lost in the Sky of Love”
The notes I hear on this one are C-B-A-G.
8. “Save the Animals”
A synth patch sweeps upward to the note while string pads intone C-B-A-G.
9. “Happy to Live”
The notes involved with this composition happen to be C-B-A-G.
10. “What Came First Are We Alive”
C-B-A-G repeated in unpredictable rhythms.
Much like “Berkeley” and “New York,” except with a cheesy koto patch.
12. “Tribute to Lil B”
C-B-A-G for almost 5 minutes
13. “At the Zoo With Mom”
And there's the zookeeper, feeding the flamingos some C-B-A-G's.
14. “Dreams Are Real”
And so are the notes C-B-A-G.
15. “Exhale With Love in Your Chest”
C-B-A-G over filter-sweep patches and doofy sitars
16. “Wooden Hotel”
At this hotel, the pitches C-B-A-G check in and never leave.
17. “Welcome to America”
Somehow, this one is in a different key than C-B-A-G.
In any case, don't get me wrong, it would be quite possible for B to become an actual composer. He clearly has the will and the musical curiosity. All he has to do is the following:
1. Learn how to play an instrument well.
2. Take theory lessons, as one needs to master the established rules before deciding to break them.
3. Take composition lessons. There are plenty of excellent composers in the Bay Area for this.
These steps will certainly improve his music, and, just maybe, the next time he releases a “classical” album we won't describe it as such in air quotes.