An Interview with Lil B
Lil B is a cultural force. In the last few years, he’s released over a thousand tracks, hundreds of music videos, and dozens of mixtapes. Many of his songs are energetic, obscene, ridiculous, and over-the-top; his goofiest tracks, which he calls “based freestyles,” are loose and unrehearsed (he claims to be “the rawest rapper”), and shine with a playful willingness to break conventions, pairing the most ebullient, positive emotions with abrasive lyrics. Recently, his “cooking dance”—miming stirring, chopping, and other culinary actions, as displayed in a ten-minute video he released in 2010— has become a mainstream meme, and NFL players use it during touchdown celebrations. In 2015, Lil B (whose given name is Brandon Christopher McCartney) put a public curse on NBA player James Harden for doing the dance but refusing to credit Lil B as its creator. This was the second curse he’d placed on an NBA player; in 2011, he cursed Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant after Durant insulted his music on Twitter. (When Durant signed with the Golden State Warriors in 2016, Lil B rescinded the curse, and Durant won his first title the following year.)
The Lil B oeuvre is vast, and it mainly orbits around language. His catchphrases “Thank You Based God,” “Stay Based,” and “Protect Lil B at All Costs” have spread online, circulating his slang globally. (For Lil B, “Based” describes “just being who you are and not afraid of that,” and his work includes many references to “Based World,” “Based Fam,” and, of course, “the Based God.”) Lil B’s fans have arranged for him to lecture at NYU and MIT, where his speeches have covered topics such as accepting others for their differences and being authentic as an artist. He’s released a song by his adopted tabby cat, KeKe, which features her purring over a beat. He’s also tried out for both the Golden State Warriors’ and the Philadelphia 76ers’ D-league teams.
Social media is a good introduction to Lil B. His Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr feeds share messages like “NOBODY IS UGLY ON EARTH IF YOU THINK OTHER HUMANS ARE UGLY, I FEEL BAD FOR YOU, THANK YOU FOR WAKING UP TODAY I LOVE YOU” and “I wanna give you a hug when i see you, rember any day can be your last dont be scared to love.” This tenderness and focus on love is present in much of his other work, including songs like “We Are the World,” which is labeled on YouTube as “THE MOST POSITIVE SONG EVER MADE,” and “I Love You,” whose music video ends with him crying and saying, “The world’s so big… I want to spread so much love… I got a lot of love to spread… and I want the world to hear it.”
Lil B has spoken up about political issues—hydraulic fracking, income inequality, racism in America, and the private prison industry. He has been interviewed on CNN about his support for Bernie Sanders and the Black Lives Matter movement. But he produces material so quickly that, while his freedom is inspiring, his output can seem sloppy and his ideas and values contradictory. He’s claimed a commitment to feminism, shouting out lyrics such as “Stand up against rape. / No means no” and “Respect all women,” but in other lyrics he refers to “bitches” as currency. In conjunction with GirlTime, a Twitter account apparently run by his fans, Lil B reposts selfies sent to him by young women on social media, sometimes with his name written on their bodies. In 2015, he posted a flippant, transphobic tweet that read, “I might start saying I’m trans and I’m a woman so I can be in the girls Locker room with the ladies !!!!!!” He later apologized in a series of tweets, saying, “I am transphobic and I need help to learn to accept.”
Radio producer Mooj Zadie put me in touch with Lil B and helped shape our discussion. I spoke to the rapper for an hour on the phone; we talked about his efforts on social media (he follows over a million people on Twitter), what he thinks humans can learn from other animals, and about the contradictions I’ve perceived in his politics. I was struck by his bold confidence and his genuine willingness to talk about each of these subjects. —Steve Roggenbuck
THE BELIEVER: Do you know at all who I am, or not really?
LIL B: Not really, but I’m down to learn.
BLVR: I didn’t expect you to. Anyway, doesn’t matter—I want to focus on you in this interview. Your work has been really influential to me. When I was getting started as a poet, I would put on your videos and your songs when I needed the energy to feel self-confident and motivated for a day. So I do want to thank you for that, and I know I’m not the only person who feels that way.
LB: I appreciate you so much, man. That’s why I done this music. I wanted to motivate and to create a new economy with the music.
BLVR: I started off in the poetry community, and these writers, a lot of them will be very critical of people who use social media in a proactive way—following other people and reaching out to other people. They feel like it’s too self-promotional. I think the environment in rap is a little different toward that grind. But you seem to think that it’s not something to be ashamed of: that it’s a good thing that you sat there and clicked those 1.2 million people to follow.
LB: Yeah, because these people want to talk to me. A lot of people don’t like the spam that you get in the mail—and bless those people that are still creating this mail and sending it out with the coupons and stuff like that, which is cool—but, I mean, save the paper, you know, save the trees. For me, there are a lot of people that want to hear what I have to say. There are a lot of people who want to talk to Lil B, and they care about Lil B. Without the people I wouldn’t be able to reach that magnitude of engagement.
BLVR: On Facebook you’ve said that you were going to be the first human to make real communication with a bug. Have you been successful with that yet?
LB: Thank you for bringing up that beautiful quote I said. I was actually observing a squirrel today in the natural habitat and just seeing how it maneuvers around humans—the tail movements, different reactions from the squirrel when the squirrel sees humans. You know, for me, with the bugs, this is going to be an ongoing process, but I think there can be communication between a human and an insect, and I definitely will be continuing to pursue that. I’ve just been observing and gathering observations for myself, putting them on notes, mental notes.
BLVR: What do you think human beings could learn from bugs or other animals?
LB: The natural form of life. I think humans make a lot of things complicated. I think that just because there are a lot of great things humans have done, who’s to say that a bug hasn’t done great things as well? I mean, look at ants. Just a lot of different instincts, and how they naturally maneuver. I mean, everything that is upon this earth, even from a worm or a caterpillar that blossoms into a butterfly, you know, these things are just amazing. I definitely don’t feel like I’m over any insects or any animals, but there’s a lot of people who feel the superiority or feel that they are the dominant force within the world. More power to them, but you miss a lot of great stuff, thinking like that.
BLVR: Will we ever see a full album from KeKe?
LB: Yeah, definitely. But I always just take my time with stuff. I mean, before working on this album with KeKe, I’m her friend. This is a part of my family. So I’m not gonna rush too much about it, but I wanna get it out there, and I see people really demanding it. Ever since I came out with KeKe, I just seen everybody else trying to have their pets with them. I’ve seen Andrew W.K. come out with a cat album, or something. Major respect to him, too. I got love for him. But it’s like Lil B is the original, the number one, the first hip-hop artist to feature his adopted cat, KeKe, on a record. She was in the studio on the mic with me. That’s what I’m saying: I can’t just put together that album, because it’s not as easy as people think. It has to be good feelings, good vibes. And I’m not gonna force my cat to speak. I can’t do that.
BLVR: One thing that I am really interested in asking you about, because of stuff I’ve struggled with, is that you’ve made yourself and your work easy to hate. You put out work that flies in the face of many conventions about what’s good in rap or art, and you’ve said many controversial things. I’m sure there are thousands of people posting mean stuff about you online every day. When you see that stuff, I’m wondering: how do you feel, and are there any strategies you have for staying confident and forthright in your work in the face of so much hate and criticism? Or the flip side is: when do you know to take it seriously and try and learn from the criticism? Because I’ve seen you do that a few times as well.
LB: I think for me, I get so much love that it balances or overpowers the hate. When I started making music, it was kind of flawless for me. I didn’t get any hate early in my hip-hop career. I got my deal, I think, when I was around fifteen or sixteen with [rap group] the Pack, so, you know, it was kind of just me going straight into music, and the streets loving me, the people loving what we do, what I do, my music, my verses—being embraced by so many people, and especially the target audience that I wanted to be raised by, which was the hood, which was the streets that love me.
BLVR: On Twitter you made some transphobic comments that understandably upset a lot of people. You publicly apologized. What do you think you learned from that experience?
LB: One thing that I’m actually doing is talking to a female professor out of the transgender studies program at Kaiser Oakland, so she talks to transgender people. She really knows firsthand what’s going on, and she’s somebody that I’ma be talking to and getting more information from. I was in Berkeley or Oakland and there was a transgender person and they had a book signing and they were talking about being transgender in San Quentin prison. I came toward the end and I didn’t get a chance to see everything, but I definitely listened. I listened humbly.
BLVR: In a similar vein, I’m curious about your feelings about feminism. You’ve said some great stuff in certain songs, like in “No Black Person Is Ugly,” but you also have songs like “Violate That Bitch,” and on many songs you’ve joked about the number of “bitches” you have. There’s humor mixed in, I guess, but it can be confusing for some listeners to know how to interpret all of that.
LB: Yeah, definitely. First thing I want to say, me being black in America, I’ve been confused. I’ve been lied to greatly, historically, by the white man. I got love for my white brothers, though. I got love for everybody. I give my true self. So when you hear the line “Respect all women. / Pass me a couple of bitches,” that’s me being at battle, because I do respect women, and I want people to know that. I feel the humor, too. When I talk about this stuff, it needs to be explained. I understand how it can be confusing for women. Music is fun. People blame hip-hop and rappers for being misogynistic. I think they should blame the white man because—not the white man of today, but historically, the white man didn’t even let white women vote. I’m a product of America. I’m a product of the different—whether it be institutional racialism, whether it might be growing up in a low-income area, whether it might be, you know, coming from my mother, my father. I’m a totally different person from my mother and father, but once again I’m from them. We all have our different souls, but I’m from them. Let’s talk about the movies that I’ve seen. The movies that come out in Hollywood, the images that we see. The TV shows. Let’s talk about American Pie.
BLVR: I also remember a tweet of yours, a famous tweet—you said, “Jacking off has ruined my life.” There was a time in my life when I noticed there were messages about women and sex that were coming to me from pornography and there was a whole challenge to quit and move beyond the influence of that.
LB: I have a song called “Birth to Life.” That music was produced by the Based God, and that’s about the birth and the beauty of women, and birth to life, and how special the woman is. I’m not trying to blame anybody. I’m not trying to play the blame game, make anybody like my white brothers uncomfortable, but that’s just something, historically. I don’t feel like I was born that way. I know no one was born that way.
BLVR: When you talk about being “based,” and your “based freestyles,” my understanding of it is you feel like you’re exposing yourself.
LB: Oh yeah.
BLVR: And that includes all these things that you still need to work on.
LB: Definitely, definitely.
BLVR: And publicly learning, apologizing, and accepting.
LB: I put myself out there. I want people to know my growth. To know me. To say, “Hey, Lil B, I appreciate your honesty, appreciate you for who you are,” not what they think I am. Like I said, I love people. The only reason why there is any hesitance is because of betrayal, and having to relearn what I thought was right, or what I thought was wrong. I came out the womb a loving, happy baby that loved everything.
BLVR: A golden baby.
LB: We all are. We all came out that way, my brother. From what we acquired, and what we learned, and what we’ve seen, and what we gravitated to, that’s what switched up our mind-set. We’re not mentally free.
BLVR: You encourage young girls and women to post pictures of themselves, which you’ll often retweet. Why reinforce [the idea of] girls getting attention for how they look?
LB: I’m behind GirlTime, but I work for GirlTime. Walking past the magazine store, I see twenty magazines of white women, and they look one way, what society thinks is beautiful. So I wanted to give [a voice to] the overweight girl, or the girl that might be 4’11” and feels like she’s not tall enough to model, or anybody. People see what they want to see. There’s a lot of people that see the beauty of it. GirlTime Twitter has about eight thousand followers, and the reception that I get from the girls, they’ll be like, “Thank you so much for promoting the beauty of all women.” I created it because I seen girls—girls that are white, black, Asian, yellow, pink, gray, purple, whatever—they would say, “Hey, I’m not tall enough to be a model.” Or “My teeth aren’t straight.” Or whatever. I wanted to give a platform to showcase all beauty. Beauty is being alive.
BLVR: I know it can feel like you’re being attacked when people say they are upset with you.
LB: I’m learning, I’m learning. You do have a right to question me. I say things, but it can be foolish because I don’t know what I’m talking about. Like being transgender: I don’t know what I’m talking about. Feminism: I don’t know what I’m talking about. But I care. I’m trying to learn. I love people. I’m growing.
BLVR: Is it true that you know the Based God?
LB: Yes, I know the Based God personally. The Based God is extremely rare, rarely ever shows his face. The Based God has two albums, not Lil B. Now, get this correct. Lil B has never dropped an album. Everything that I have released, music-wise, has been mixtapes.
BLVR: Eventually will you drop an album as Lil B?
LB: Yeah, I’ve been working for about six, seven years on the first album. It’s about 40 to 50 percent complete.
BLVR: But the Based God has two albums.
LB: Yeah, the Based God has Choices and Flowers and Tears for God. Those are new-age, ambient, classical albums—a new realm of music. The Based God produced and composed everything; Lil B executive-produced. I really can’t wait to work with the Based God on historical music that’s never been created.
BLVR: Do you think that you’d ever do a tour with the Based God?
LB: I don’t know, but anything is possible, my friend. Anything. They found water on Mars.