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Most people agree rapping is about rhyming words together. Not Lil B. His musical style, which he has termed "based," consists of largely stream-of-consciousness musings haphazardly expressed over a basic beat. Some songs' themes are positive and universal. Many others push the virile persona of hip-hop stars to an absurd extreme. "Pretty Bitch" does this and adds a vain twist: "Damn based god, I'm a pretty bitch/I'm iced out/Iced-up bitch with your girl on my dick." In any song or "based freestyle," it's not unusual for B to suddenly contradict himself, change points of view, or fall back midthought on a few reliable refrains. One of those is, not surprisingly, "swag."
In the flesh, though, Brandon McCartney doesn't seem so audacious. As he steers a broad-shouldered black Mercedes S550 into a parking lot near San Francisco's Sutro Heights Park, the 21-year-old known as Lil B barely rises above the doorsill. He arrives clothed like a grungy undergrad: blue Cal-Berkeley sweatshirt and dirt-streaked jeans hanging far below his hips, with athletic shorts bridging the gap between the top of his pants and his boxers. Tattered white Vans dangle from his feet, a memento of the hit song "Vans" that briefly got McCartney (and his mates in Berkeley rap group the Pack) on the Jive Records roster before he could drive. The tattoos streaming down his neck don't stand out much in the blue-gray afternoon light.
Today is busy, because tomorrow, Lil B leaves to tour Europe for two weeks. It will be his first time on the continent, and he can't quite recall all the cities he'll be playing.
Ask McCartney a question, and his answers will often wind their way back to one of a few select phrases like "one life to live" or "spread the love, spread the positivity." These are meta-instructions for the actions of the Based God. He's far more inclined to follow these guidelines than anything else — even in the face of heated resistance. "His music is TERRIBLE, his persona is honestly an embarrassment to hip-hop," one commenter wrote on an early interview with Lil B. "I'm a pretty bitch? I'm finer than Nicki Minaj? WTF? That's gay dude."
Lil B is used to this kind of talk. "I've already done a lot of rapping how most of these rappers are rapping now," he says calmly, from behind pink-rimmed sunglasses. "But I've been rapping for eight, nine years now, and I'm not going to rap the same forever."
After the Pack's success petered out, Lil B pushed the group's "based" ethos ("just doing what you want, not really worrying about what people feel or say about you") into a new approach to music and fame. First, his self-recorded songs could be largely improvised, casual, and more about feeling than precision. This allowed him to release more music than anyone else: One mixtape this year included a bandwidth-hogging 676 songs, while its tracklisting was a four-page Microsoft Word document.
Second, Lil B adopted the persona of a sort of hip-hop Internet deity, building support for the Based God through digital omnipresence. He started more than 100 MySpace pages. He began spending 18 or more hours per day online. He follows, as of this writing, more than 165,000 accounts on Twitter, and regularly retweets messages from his more than 272,000 followers.
Lil B filled these streams with memes largely of his own making: There was the cooking dance, an absurd gyration that imitates the chopping and stirring of kitchen work. There was the phrase "Thank you Based God," which has been pasted atop images of famous men weeping (Barack Obama, Kobe Bryant, and James Van Der Beek), as if they are in awe of his powers. The ultimate nod to his stature: Some male fans, motivated by one of his lyrics, have invited him to have sex with their girlfriends.
In terms of shock and self promotion, Lil B is a lot like notorious Oakland rapper Too $hort, who hand-built his fame by selling tapes out of the trunk of his car. "It's always been the Bay Area way of hustling your own music," says "Prince" Aries Nuñez, a local hip-hop DJ and producer of hip-hop TV show Distortion2Static. "Right now, the trunk just happens to be the Internet."
As with Too $hort, Lil B was seen as a kind of a Bay Area freak at first. Then he grew into an underground curiosity. Starting last year, the ever-present din of Lil B's relentless online self-promotion grew too loud for the mainstream to ignore. He was booked into slots at South by Southwest and Coachella. He made XXL magazine's Freshman 10 list for 2011 — and its cover — as another 11th pick. As he began to earn respect, so did his new approach to fame. "Lil B is a master at marketing," DJ Amen says.
Yet there remains disagreement that Lil B's nonrhyming shower of half-sensical musings, splattered over beats with few hooks, counts as a legitimate hip-hop. "A lot of people, they're like, 'He can't do that,'" hip-hop DJ D Sharp says. "But he's like, 'Fuck you, I can.' And people don't like that."
This hardly troubles Lil B, who munches on chunks of watermelon as he ponders the issue. "A lot of people in hip-hop are followers," he says. "They're afraid to do something new. It's a lot of rules I'm breaking."
One rule he breaks is the hypermasculine image demanded of male MCs. He has joked about being gay, and once Tweeted that he would force anal sex on Kanye West unless West agreed to a collaboration. Then, at Coachella this spring, Lil B — who says he's straight — announced that his upcoming album would be called I'm Gay. Responses came quickly — some as death threats.
The notion of it being a Bay Area rapper who dares to challenge hip hop's latent homophobia seems natural. But is I'm Gay an act of protest or an act of attention-grabbing?