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“I’m the first rapper ever to write a book in email and text message form,” Lil B says from a Highline Ballroom stage, surveying the sold-out room. “At 19! And they had the nerve to call me stupid.” Lil B is not stupid. And though he is not the first rapper to write a book, he may well be the first to do it in email and text message form, whatever that is. B has a way with firsts: first concert t-shirt with hashtag on it (“#SWAG”). First rapper to express embarrassment onstage about the chest hair he’s just begun growing. First artist I’ve ever seen to vow to get Botox when he gets older (“I’mma get that plastic surgery, I’mma have tour bus full of young girls!”). First guy to rub up and down on his washboard abs while holding the microphone against them so the audience can hear the sound. (OK, maybe he’s not the first to do that one.) And of course: “I’m the first rapper to make an ambient album! Ya’ll in the club, listening to ambient music!”
That’d be Rain In England, one of many mixtapes the Berkeley-born rapper released last year, though perhaps of all of them it was the weirdest–actual textural downer music accompanied by sparse spoken-word meditations on existence, not exactly pleasurable, but daring, like most things this 21-year-old does. He creates his own novel context, then explains it to you: “I ain’t never read the bible, no disrespect,” he says toward the end of the show, hand on his heart. “I never seen those hood movies. I’ve never even seen Boyz n the Hood…I adopted a cat, and I’m proud of that. I’m a happy owner! You feel me?”
Not exactly, but that’s the part of the point–Lil B is a compelling artist and a fascinating performer precisely because of the weird, completely different grooves through which his mind moves. And while at least half of any given crowd he’s performing in front of will inevitably find itself lost at some ironic remove, he’s clearly built something, hundreds of kids with cooking implements and ambient sexuality and a willingness to go along with B wherever he’s going, even if it’s to their house to fuck their family members.
Compared to Lil B’s first sold-out NYC show, last July at Santos Party House, there’s less of this stuff–hardly any based freestyles, less talk about Mel Gibson; more genre-bending stuff like a kinda intolerable Rain In England mid-set interlude and emo anthems like “Cold War.” He may or may not have rocked to M83 for a while. The crowd at Highline was much bigger, and more diverse: Diplo at the back of the stage, guys like A-Trak in the audience, way more women, way more people above the legal drinking age, though the show remained all ages. Less of a moshpit, more of a sermon, basically.
“This is a very intimate show,” he says at one point. “We’re just going to be talking.” And indeed, the last half hour (this thing went for like ninety minutes, maybe more) is mostly just B striding from one side of the stage to the other, signing things for the kids in the front row while music blared in the background. “I killed hip-hop,” he says, “and I also saved hip-hop.” Neither of those things are true. But name another rapper who’s trying to do both at the same time.