It was a little weird when Apple released their onslaught of cryptic press over finally landing the rights to all of the Beatles’ music. They may have, in fact, created too much hype, as the advertisements suggested that Steve Jobs was set to announce that he had signed Lebron James, legalized marijuana, or done both. Many fans had the same reaction once the news was revealed: Doesn’t Best Buy have the White Album already? Don’t I have the White Album already?
What Apple was trying to access, however, were the deep nostalgic recesses of their older customer’s minds. They didn’t care about the seventeen year old who hasn’t paid for a song since 2002- they were reaching out to his parents, specifically the ones who screamed and cried and dated Japanese girls and altered their entire outlook on life because of four lads from Liverpool. Beatlemania seems to be something so unique and powerful that no one in his twenties or thirties should really try to describe it. It seems, though, like the closest thing our culture has to the orgasm-aneurism hybrid that the band consistently produced is the way someone reacts today when their soul has been saved in front of a congregation of hundreds.
To Jobs and company, tapping into that religious devotion meant huge numbers on iTunes. In the opening week, they sold almost half a million albums and over two million individual tracks. Some customers were undoubtedly first-timers, but it’s likely that the strength of those huge figures came largely from die-hard fans that ached to have a new experience with their old idols, even if it meant buying additional copies of music they’d already memorized the words to.
It was another brilliant move by the company that stays winning, but one person has actually harnessed collective nostalgia on an even larger scale. Ironically, his name is Brandon McCartney. Most of us know him as Lil B.
What makes Lil B unique is not that he’s capitalizing on nostalgia- reunion shows and ‘best-of’ albums do it all the time- it’s that the nostalgia he taps into is not based in actual events of the past, but rather emotions and experiences that have never happened to any of his fans. He is offering an experience that for his fans, growing up in this generation has prevented them from ever having. It’s genius.
Modern hip hop fans have not been deprived of talent or variety, but we been deprived of unity, which in turn has deprived us of wild fanaticism. Every corner of the industry seeks to separate us into increasingly narrow factions. Sean Price recently told all Kid Cudi fans to kill themselves; Wiz Khalifa presents us with becoming a Taylor or dying as our only options, albeit more lightheartedly; seemingly every MC has joined some sort of collective with a with-us-or-against-us mentality that simplifies life for them, but makes it very hard for fans to like artists with conflicting ideologies without appearing uninformed. Additionally, the aforementioned folks at Apple have contributed to a shift in how we build our musical identities. We don’t all tune in to the same radio station; we plug ourselves in to our own private collection of music that is different from everyone else’s. We’ve become hip hop snowflakes.
These things are apparent to most everyone. We have all sacrificed commonality for a greater level of self-expression and access to information. What’s less apparent, though, is how the industry’s fragmentation has prevented us from ever being swept up in a movement so large that we stop becoming fans and morph into fanatics.
At first glance, Lil B seems like the artist least suited to capture us in this way, mostly because Lil B is an amalgamation of every bad hip hop cliché. His verses are the basest extreme (no pun intended) of hip hop’s dregs: atonal, comically scattered, and rife with detached misogyny. Everything about him is hilariously- but consciously- vague. His self-appointed status as the Based God seems to entitle him to whatever he wants to be entitled to at any given moment. He has passion, but no thesis; a deep “appreciation” for women, but no specific stories of either love or sexual conquest; his physical appearance is only distinct in that he apparently can shape shift: some days he looks like Ellen Degeneres, on others he looks like Jesus Christ (which sets him up nicely to be Bill O’Reily’s new least favorite rapper. You’re off the hook, Cam).
Just as important as the ambiguity of his identity, however, is the fact that his music is, in the traditional sense, not good at all. The music he currently makes is such an enormous downgrade in sophistication from his days with The Pack that he might be the only rapper to ever launch a comeback that yields exponetentially greater success with remarkably shittier music. But this, combined with his lack of a detailed identity, is the crux of his likeability. Show me a rapper with tons of talent and an interesting story, and I’ll show you tons of people who hate him. This is partly due simply to differences in taste, and partly due to the hyper-individuality that has become so pervasive among hip hop fans. Lil B does not have to navigate these obstacles, however, because there is little argument over the quality of his music, and even less about the merits of his personality. Without these two factors, fans are left with much less dividing them.
Simply the absence of specificity and lyrical prowess, though, is not enough to get you millions of adoring fans- it’s exhibiting these qualities despite the fact that your fans know you are capable of much more. From his stint as the unofficial spokesman for Vans, Lil B has proven that he can, in fact, rap much, much better than he currently does- and this is why everyone is so comfortable with liking him. Without his previous years, he would either be seen as a foolish flash-in-the-pan, or something much worse: a lifeless parody of everything people point to when they claim that hip hop is dead. The fact that he previously had success with a much higher level of hip hop, however, makes this entire phase of his career somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
That is the Beauty of Lil B. We don’t have to feel guilty about worshipping someone who raps poorly and acts bizarrely, because we know that that behavior is the product of a concerted effort to be that way. To facilitate this lack of inhibition, the Based God has structured his fan base the way a religious evangelist would. He accepts any and all fans (and more often than not, shows each of them some love on his dizzying number of social networking pages), and in return for his openness he merely asks that everyone call him God and blindly, passionately hang on every statement he makes without running it through the gauntlet of rational thought.
And we love it, because, deep in every hip hop fan rests a desire to access the inner Beatlemania that has been oppressed for so many years. Mired in a culture that rewards us less for loving something than for not really liking anything at all, we are all dying to feel the religion and the mysticism that was so central to older generations of fans, to go to a concert dressed in a chef’s outfit and bawl our eyes out and throw our girlfriends on stage as a barbaric sexual offering to our musical idol. And ideally, he would be genuinely humble despite his façade of immortality, thanking us for our presence as much as we thank him for his. And, if possible, we’d like to go back to our discerning, rational, blogging selves in the morning.
And the Based God knows our desires, so that is exactly what he grants us.
In the Church of the Based God, this mystical world of ambient noise and non-sequiturs, nothing is at steak. For once, all we are required to do is show up with love in our hearts and swag in our souls. To older generations it may seem like buffoonery, a pathetic facsimile of what it truly meant to obsess. But those people worshipped men; fans of Lil B are worshiping the act of worship itself. Fortunately, his disciples could care less about how they’re perceived. If there’s one common thread throughout the history of fandom, it’s that the grown ups just never understand.