There are two popular ways of coming at Lil B’s music.
The first is outright dismissal. A significant portion of the listening public is turned off by the seeming childishness and rough-hewn nature of his material. They find it infantile or moronic.
The second is ironic approval. Because of his prolificacy and oddball sensibilities, Lil B has become the exemplar of internet-wave hip-hop. From this perspective his work seems like art brut, a (presumably) unknowing reflection of the state of music in the twenty-first century.
There have been a few more complicated treatments of Lil B’s music as winking provocateur or network visionary. For my purposes I would like to focus on the spiritual dimension of his music.
I want to articulate the mystical theme that runs through Lil B’s work. It draws on a mix of his own home-brewed creative ontology, Judeo-Christian mysticism (writ large), and a sort of liberal pan-spirituality. We will see that this unique stance comes from the nature of his ambitious goal and his idiosyncratic context; as so many of us are, he is attempting to work from where he is rather than from any codified religious position. His eclectic, haphazard approach to religious and ethical life suffers horrible (arguably humiliating) failures at times from its internal tensions. At times he lapses into uninspired and dull posturing. But the same tensions that lead him to lapse into inanity lend his songs particular ingenious moments. Who could expect anything else from this sort of religious exploration?
A discussion of the relationship between Lil B and religion could easily become a monograph. Thus, I’ve limited the scope to my favorite of his songs, “I’m God”, and its accompanying music video. I will attempt to keep the analysis of “I’m God” within its internal structure, lending related works and theoretical references primarily in the end-notes. Finally, I will deal with the beat, the imagery, and the final verse rather than going through the entire text line-by-line (my first attempt to do a thorough reading was terrifyingly long).
The video opens in what appears to be a religious goods store in Los Angeles. Lil B is wandering around, handling the merchandise as his cameraman shakily shadows him. This imagery is gorgeous, if a little familiar; even in a commodified world where religious artifacts seem anachronistic, there is a beauty and a subtlety to each of the objects in their individuality, as the video’s numerous closeups attempt to convey. Further, the structure of the store mirrors the structure of Lil B’s lyrical struggle within the song; from within a modern, heavily commercial environment, here the notoriously superficial environs of LA, he strives to use the tools at his disposal to relate to something simultaneously ahistorical, personal, and spiritual. His relationship with God and his related attempt to be a deity are quickly expressed in the opening lines of the song. Over the hushed whispers of an Imogen Heap sample, he tells us that we know he always wanted to be the best. What rapper doesn’t?
The experience of struggle and overcoming is central to hip-hop, as is the notion that material wealth is connected with one’s spiritual wealth. This often involves a set of simple answers to the question: “How do I know that I’ve been successful, that I’ve approached perfection even as I suffer from this struggle?” One of the primary conflicts in hip-hop is wanting to know you’ve made it, and this helps us understand the emphasis on benjamins, booze, and bitches that many rappers refer to as proof of their symbolic security. Material wealth often fails to capture exactly what rappers are attempting; thus Jay-Z’s late career shift of concern from dope and hoes to his legacy[i]. At a certain point, the material goods are not enough; they, like the bodies who possess them, are too finite, and elicit a craving for more that often becomes displaced onto conservative concerns with one’s presence in history. Lil B, despite not having the capital or success of a more marketable rapper, reaches out to this same sense of historical success and, importantly, even further beyond it to spiritual concerns. Thus, he opens the track with his desire, not simply to be the best, but to be God. Soon after he affirms his ambition to be divine, he affirms again his finite, named identity: “This is real talk. It’s Lil B.” His name is public, contextualized, but his spiritual pursuit is not; he is a historical figure confined to his context and his history but striving for something more, a commodity striving for significance like the religious products that surround him. This struggle is the core of the song.
The Imogen Heap song sampled by producer Clams Casino is “Just for Now”, another song about the passions involved in struggle. In that song, the conflict is interpersonal; Heap meditates on the struggle to remain happy, calm, and avoid judgment even as your desires and doubts pull you apart from one another. There is not space here for a detailed analysis of “Just for Now”, but the song is about the balance of desiring pause and escape even as the immanent pressures of a relationship push you into uncomfortable contact with the Other. This has a direct analog in Lil B’s complex relationship with his spirituality, with Jesus Christ (iconography of whom appears prominently in the video), and with his own desire to be properly recognized by others while remaining true to his own ambition.
In the hands of Casino, the Imogen Heap sample becomes an angelic chorus surrounding Lil B’s all-too grounded and personal voice. The sample becomes ghostly and secondary; abstracted in order to express its affective nature over its lyrical content (though that also remains relevant). Longing and passion charge Lil B’s delivery with a context and a hungriness that his decontextualized lyrics do not have. This funhouse reflection is one aspect of the implicitly structured ecology of “I’m God”. Lil B, frustrated by his inability to consistently and clearly express his desire and ambition, surrounds himself with images and sounds that also obliquely refer to an unnamed object. This symbolic collage is constructed in hopes that holistically the entire configuration (assemblage) will be able to express what he, in his historically determined selfhood, cannot[ii].
Let’s turn to the final verse. I will begin with Lil B’s plea: “Throw your hands up, it’s Lil B for Lil Boss/I need all the based energy I can” at about 3:26 in the music video. For those who are unfamiliar with Lil B’s terminology, being “based” has an ambiguous relationship with drugs, but is primarily characterized by a positive affect and feeling of flow[iii]. A “based freestyle” is a freestyle that flows through someone who is based. The based individual has a positive, quasi-mystical experience that is connected to another plane of being. Based here takes on the double sense of being (de)based as a centered subject and being based, as in rooted, in an originary point. Lil B consistently claims that he is the “Based God”, which is simultaneously a statement about one’s intimate relationship to God and one’s shamanic prowess at becoming (and remaining) based. It’s in this spirit that Lil B asks for our help. Being based is not an atomistic process; it’s about a relationship to a responsive audience. If Lil B’s mystical experience is successful, both he and his audience experience being based. Being based is thus related to the festival experience common to many cultures; experiencing a sense of flow is something that happens to us as a collective, not something that strikes us as individuals. Lil B as Based God takes on the position of a spiritual conduit.
After this preface, we are transitioned into the first section of the final verse. This set of lines begins a meditation on the conflict that I have described above. Lil B raps: “Is this what you really want, you’ve got me in the flesh now/No, I’m not stressed out, I’m God, I’m the best out.” Lil B here asks if you really want him as a finite, historically determined man or if we really desire him as a spiritual entity, a vector for based energy. His answer is immediate: he’s not upset about our addressing him as a human being because he knows that he is also God. This brings us to the core of the verse:
Rap transparent, my see-through glasses
Incoherent, and no I’m not starin’
I just see through you
And from your heartbeat you is soft in the middle
I’m real on the outside, solid in the inside
Bitch, it’s the Westside
Lil B takes our reminder of his humanity as a challenge. His raps are transparent and weightless; by virtue of their musical ecology they are based and therefore transcend the status of determinate words of a given speaker. They are in touch with a spiritual reality, while we (and presumably fake rappers) remain contextually determined and thus “soft in the middle”. While he works toward transcendence, we find ourselves still measuring our world by material and social goods. This lends a particularly interesting bent to his reversal of our attempt to assert his materiality; while as a mortal human he is “real on the outside”, his solidity as a rapper comes from his spiritual struggle on the inside. It’s in this spirit that he evokes the “Westside”; both a real place and a culture, the Westside captures a recognition of the tension that is missing from our mundane account of reality.
The tension and dehumanization of being based is both exhilarating and disorienting. It is in this spirit that he raps: “I’m so sick/I’m feeling so nauseous”. This leads into by far the most interesting part of the song. Lil B raps:
Somebody tell the Earth I’m the best now
Somebody tell the ocean I’m the best now
Somebody tell the trees, I’m here now
Somebody tell the world, I’m based now
See me in outerspace, I’m out of reach today
Celebrate for me, I’m Based for life[iv]
This is a culmination of the various moments of the song. Lil B asks us to evangelize his basedness and his transcendence while simultaneously echoing his earlier request for our participation. He is “Based for life” not simply because he has dedicated his life to being based, but also because being based is a recognition and a celebration of the ephemeral and oblique spiritual core of life. In the final images of prayer and an illuminated plastic angel, he asks us to celebrate alongside him.
[i] Though the shift in Jay-Z’s music warrants an extensive discussion, for a simple (and admittedly selective) comparison, consider the early, street-centric “Dead Presidents II” and the late, reputation-flaunting “Kingdom Come”.
[ii] Interesting touchstones for this sort of artistic move can be seen in the symbolist tradition. For a more robust theoretical reference, consider Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition.
[iii] Another possible avenue of investigation that will not be pursued in this essay is the relationship of Lil B and freestyling to the Fluxus movement.
[iv] Interesting precedents for this device include Emerson, Whitman, and Nietzsche. Each make claims that they channel the voices of history. This addresses their respective notions of self-hood; each makes a claim to a self that is a fractured element of a larger multiplicity. See Leaves of Grass, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and Emerson’s Essays.