mon 16/05/2022

Lil B's I'm Gay (I'm Happy): a rap revolution? | reviews, news & interviews

Lil B's I'm Gay (I'm Happy): a rap revolution?

Lil B's I'm Gay (I'm Happy): a rap revolution?

The strangest rapper in the US makes a sudden break for the mainstream

It's not often you can call pop music revolutionary, but this record is - in more ways than one. Bringing together techniques of engagement that have been honed by Radiohead, Lady Gaga, Lil Wayne and... um... Justin Bieber, the 21-year-old Berkley, California rapper Lil B appears to be on the verge of becoming the first bona fide internet-birthed superstar. I'm Gay (I'm Happy) appeared on iTunes yesterday, announced with a single tweet, with no prior warning whatsoever bar an announcement of its provocative title a couple of months back. It has seemingly no standard record company support behind it, yet it is instantly huge news.

Following a minor hit with his teenage rap group The Pack, the enigmatic Lil B went on to build his enormous and passionate following first of all through a constant online presence. Endless free download tracks and YouTube appearances, plus constant interaction with his fans on MySpace and Twitter, created a mythology into which those fans bought wholesale. Where hip hop has long created an atmosphere where people are fêted primarily for being the newest, hottest thing, or for their superiority in carefully engineered rivalries (“beefs”), this very modern connection to fans has actually fostered good, old-fashioned idolisation.

Listen to "I Hate Myself"

His musical styles, too, tapped into multiple lines of support. Tracks that veered from affectionate satires of populist rap styles to stream-of-consciousness sermonising over entirely ambient soundscapes, sampling anything and everything that he found online, intrigued everyone from pre-teen pop fans to Wire-reading avant-gardists. But it wasn't only social and fan networks that have worked for him: an ultra-savvy use of famous names as song titles (Justin Bieber, Mel Gibson, Miley Cyrus, Paris Hilton) harnessed the power of search engines themselves to spread his name and ideas.

And it's those ideas that really make his debut album interesting – and, yes, revolutionary. Oddly, it's relatively conservative musically: despite all his online experiments with found beats, electronica, ambient and disjointed rhythms, Lil B has settled on a very classic hip-hop sound for the most part here. It's recognisably contemporary, with some nice weird twists, but the tracks are generally rhythmically steady and built around old soul samples. And his rapping style is as usual deceptively simple, slightly slurred, and relying often on very basic rhymes. But his words and the personality that shines through are extremely radical for a rapper.

The album really has one theme: absolute affirmation. The title's assertion of the original sense of the word “gay” is key – and note that title in itself is a genuinely brave move in a culture rife with homophobia. Lil B (who is, it seems, heterosexual) has received repeated death threats as a direct consequence of announcing it. Throughout, particular themes are repeated over and over: love, self-acceptance, achieving happiness against the odds, community, escaping crabs-in-a-bucket ghetto mentalities, comparison of rap's compulsory gold chains and jewellery to the chains of slavery.

These are not mainstream America's Xanax-smooth have-a-nice-day platitudes, nor the safe, wholemeal retro agendas of "conscious hip hop"

But these are not mainstream America's Xanax-smooth have-a-nice-day platitudes, and nor are they based on the safe, wholemeal retro agendas of so much "conscious hip hop". And the reason that they're not is that Lil B shows his working. As with his endless online outpourings, this retains the sense of stream-of-consciousness – you can hear in every verse the mental processes of a young man finding his way, deciding on the paths he wants to pursue, loving the culture of hip hop even as he diverges from it. Also, this is not someone trying to create “alternative” music: Lil B has put his head above the parapet, he's pushing into the heart of the mainstream, and his refusal to play by hip hop's cold, harsh, adversarial rules is no mere aesthetic decision. Like his album title, it seems to be something that scares and angers a lot of powerful people.

Listen to "Unchain Me"

So I'm Gay (I'm Happy) is a thrilling record. It's the flipside to Odd Future's angry adolescent kicking over of hip hop's conventions, an internal dialogue that isn't self-destructive like Kanye West's, a record that loves hip hop, is hip hop in a very pure form, and yet transcends it too. There's something of Lady Gaga's Born This Way in its mantras of self-realisation (and of her Little Monsters in Lil B's passionate following), too. The churchiness and rich chord changes in its soul samples (and, hilariously, in "Unchain Me" a sample of the theme from The Lost Boys) add to the surging feeling of affirmation. Throughout, you can feel the refusal of what William Blake called “mind forg'd manacles”, a dissolution of superego and quest for a kind of personal freedom that isn't predicated entirely on status or others' approval.

Whether it's a classic album I can't tell after a day listening; it's difficult to pick apart how much of its buzz is about how new and different it feels, and how much is to do with musical greatness. But it does feel new, and very different to all that surrounds it, and it's a joy to listen to. Lil B's independence of spirit when so many in the mainstream of hip hop are pandering to accepted wisdom and corporate agendas is hugely refreshing, and the almost gauche warmth of his message is simply cheering. It's a strange, sweet and in some ways very small kind of revolution – but it is a revolution, and whatever Lil B does next is going to be one of the most fascinating tales in modern music.

 

Comments

Cool. I was looking for an example of somebody actually making all this DIY spruik yourself from the comfort of your couch music marketing jazz work and stumbled over this.

Really great review

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