Such is the power of Lil B’s performance-art mindfuckery, that when I am halfway through hearing his new album, I’m Gay (I’m Happy), and decide that I pretty much love what I am hearing, that I also start to doubt myself. I doubt my previous negative opinion of Lil B’s work, however microscopic the portion of its immensity I’ve had the patience to absorb (a few mixtapes and the ambient album along with a couple hours’ worth of assorted mp3s and YouTube videos). I doubt my ability to engage honestly with an album whose title and message I instinctively want to champion no matter what the music sounds like. But I also doubt Lil B. I doubt his sincerity, fearing that he’s somehow going to pull the rug out on me, that his apparent surrender to things like rhythm, coherence, and familiar subject matter is some kind of trick.
What I want to do is listen to I’m Gay (I’m Happy) as if it’s in a vacuum, as if the album represents a direct line from Lil B’s heart to my ears. Heard that way, the album’s riveting if in a familiar way -- the lyrics are honest, funny and provocative, the beats are head-bobbing, mushy productions in a kind of Zaytoven-meets-Dilla combination of trap hop and backpacker rap. But it’s impossible to hear Lil B in a vacuum, or possible only if you concede that the vacuum is the Internet.
People are apt to equate Lil B’s music with performance art. They describe him with words like “surrealist” or “absurdist” -- tags that are more often applied to artistic realms outside of hip hop music like visual art or theater. Indeed Lil B seems to have the same attitude toward hip hop as Andy Warhol did toward painting. He’s a trickster, a subtle satirist, someone exposing the problems of hip hop (misogyny, violence, drug talk, the transience of the Internet) by embodying those problems completely.
For someone like me, someone who loves hip hop not because of the drug talk and misogyny etc, but despite it, there’s something almost maliciously aggressive in Lil B’s torrent of twinkling, whining freestyles. By refusing to respect the usual hip hop pillars of rhyming and staying on beat, Lil B flips the bird at everything we thought the genre was. It’s as if he’s attacking hip hop more than he’s criticizing it. Then this uncomfortable question of cynicism comes into play. Is Lil B cynical because he thinks he can mumble some half-rhymes over a tinny garage-band beat and call it rap? Or are the purists cynical because they think they can shout down an artist for not making “conventionally good" hip hop?
What gets in the way of Lil B hatred, or at least my particular Lil B hatred, is the fact that Lil B the person seems like a genuine, good-hearted dude. Unlike Jay-Z, who the purists revere but who sometimes seems to view rap music as his ottoman, Lil B is the kind of weirdo suited for nothing but rap. He obviously has an all-embracing love for the whole spectrum of hip hop and music in general. There’s hardly a rap star who can claim to be so consistently positive in how he relates to his fans and other artists -- if Lil B’s ever posted a negatively toned message on his Twitter account, I must have missed it.
Lil B’s starry-eyed, emotional persona challenges the usual role of a rapper as a disciplined, stone-faced warrior. Which is good, of course, but you have to wonder: if he were more consistently impressive as an emcee, would he still affect that persona? And, if were more consistently impressive as an emcee, would he would do any of the crazy stuff that he does? That’s the question that I think explains my suspicion, namely that I think I’m being taken for a ride by someone who doesn’t take rap as seriously as I do.
But then, songs like “Wonton Soup” and countless others prove that Lil B wants to rip open the perspectives and accepted subject matters of rap in the same way that (to use a wildly inappropriate analogy) Bob Dylan changed the lyrical direction of rock and roll with “Like a Rolling Stone” -- even if Lil B’s attempts are often half-baked, silly, and nearly impossible to listen to. If only Lil Wayne would use a song to contemplate the issues of the Internet era, like Lil B does in “The Age of Information,” Lil B’s importance would be established. But even if Wayne and Lil B have a collaboration in the works, and Lupe Fiasco has endorsed I’m Gay (I’m Happy), it isn’t clear that Lil B has jumped the gap yet and gone from being considered a clown to being considered a serious artist.
Treading back, finally, to I’m Gay (I’m Happy), what strikes me about the album is how little of it is half-faked, silly, or impossible to listen to. By no one’s standards is I’m Gay (I’m Happy) a conventional hip hop album -- a song called “I Hate Myself” samples Goo Goo Dolls, “Open Thunder Eternal Slumber” features the WTF couplet “I’m working for the future / because I live in a computer” -- but by Lil B’s standards it’s pretty tame. And because of that it’s likely to garner Lil B more respect from hip hop traditionalists.
Thus my disappointment with my own enjoyment of I’m Gay (I’m Happy). I feel as if I’m being pandered to, or placated. Lil B is coming down to my level, and I’m all too wiling to pull up a chair for him. In other words, if this sorta-weird package of wide-eyed boombap turns out to be Lil B’s coming-out party, what was the point of the ambient album? Like the cop-out of its parenthetic subtitle, which implies Lil B as a harmless joker instead of a committed envelope-pusher, I’m Gay (I’m Happy) is altogether too willing to throw jerks like me a bone.