Lil B (lecture)
Eisner & Lubin Auditorium, NYU
Wednesday, April 11
Better than: College.
Lil B walks onto the stage of the Eisner & Lubin Auditorium in a dayglo yellow shirt, which combats for brightness with the stage lights. Those first images you get when you stare at the sun and then close your eyes, the infrared shapes that blossom behind your eyelids? It’s as if they’d swollen into shirt form. A scarf draped around his neck is patterned with more tender blondes and greens, and his Vans are firmly aged into a sandy brown, evenly unwashed. It’s like staring into an optical illusion: B moves and the light shifts around him. Elemental synths issue from the speakers, gently recalling the sound of his 2010 album Rain in England. It’s like a cloud hugging you in the sunlight, warm and enveloping. NYU provides him with a long, clinically-shaped table, on which he leans or illustrates his sleeping patterns. “Nyah, honesty, integrity, loyalty, passion, friendship,” go his quixotic naps.
As he travels the stage, the audience yells at him, reacting to him, in a sort of call-and-response. “If you feel compelled to say something in your heart, please do,” he says, near pleading. The crowd roars powerfully. “Because at the end of the day we all have something to teach, and we all have something to say.” It is only faintly religious. It is more precisely like a self-help seminar, which also delicately orbits religion, placing God and light at exact transfers. You establish and return to certain themes, and doing so forms a foundation that is graspable, from which you can lift yourself up, a deliberate obstacle against an endless, edgeless freefall. At the start, to set the tone, he says, “Nobody in this building asked to be born.” Thirteen minutes later, he instructs us: “Don’t let people’s stereotypes or stigmas or words put you in a box. Don’t let that run your day. Don’t be depressed anymore. Be happy.” Later, again: “Nobody’s different, I’m telling you, and nobody asked to be born,” the idea taking raw shape in the repeating. “I’m telling you. I’m telling you. I’m telling you. I’m telling you. I’m telling you.”
He speaks in platitudes, but they are platitudes slightly turned by his delivery. He even identifies a secret to life: To “look at everybody like they’re a baby.” There is no trace of condescension in his expression. It’s more like: in treating people as if they are babies, out of this aggressive understanding floats something like utopia, a rocketing peace inside.
His talk is improvised. “I don’t write my speeches,” he says candidly. (It’s all candid, really.) “Any time I do this, any time I speak it’s going be from the heart. It’s going to be brand new. You can’t write love.” Every definite statement he makes, he reflexes away from, slightly. “Stop saying, black, white, this, that—we’re human,” he says, paving smoothly over history. Then: “Now, I don’t know everything. All this is is my philosophy.” It’s a monologue that eats itself, a closed system. It doesn’t feel contradictory so much as it feels like a conversation, a visible process of self-definition.
There is a noticeable population amid the crowd that laughs and yells, but in jarring, unsettling instants. There are moments during the lecture when Lil B gets flutterly, inarticulate; they laugh then. A man in the audience, hair in blondely mottled strands, as if replastered to his head from a sink, asks B, “What do you think about, bro?” B pauses and says, “Man, safety.” They laugh. Lil B is funny. The safety of people is something to legitimately hold in mind. But there’s a shift in power here, to this breed of audience. They require him to be a joke, a shared punchline. Hip-hop pundit and Voice contributor Noz later tweets that “the sad truth is that b is destined for an eternity of wesley willism/kool keithing just because he never signed with a major label.” At one point B pronounces “architecture” curiously, the “i” sound ballooning up to a “y.” Two rows behind me, I hear, “Archytecture?” echoed, a derisive curve in the voice. Then the same baffled laughter. A phrase flashes in my mind, kind of haunting the edges of this interaction. “Minstrel show.” By which I mean, these members of the audience, marinated in internet-lol culture, project a kind minstrelsy onto Lil B. They exist in a jar of phrases. They bark at him and expect absurdities. Dark and sad things hang in the air.
They make shadowy contrasts with the content of Lil B’s lecture, which elliptically rests in an earnest, utopian place. “It’s about having empathy now,” he says. “What I mean is really caring and paying attention to somebody else’s feeling. You gotta have empathy and know we all on this common vibe. It’s all peace.”
It should be clarified that Lil B is essentially an internet product. Facebook purchased Instagram on Monday and with it came an onrush of thinkpieces on how we are all trapped in an economy of personal taste, of experience, of identifiable sums of selfhood. Users realize themselves for free while profit funnels into an unknowable corporate face. Lil B especially contributes himself. The Basedprint II, his most recent mixtape, was issued nine days after his previous tape, #1 Bitch. There is no filter. He is a feed.
I suppose the strange, unusable mixtape hosts make some money off of him. But he seems curiously distinct from it, a self-replenishing system of giving. This is, admittedly, mostly in how he presents himself. “You know how I serve humanity,” he says near the end of his talk, returning to grander themes. “Spreading true love. Putting myself out there to be vulnerable, to be criticized, to be one of the most critiqued artists ever.”
There’s also a culture of expectations, that our small expressions merit attention and will be gripping to a dense block of human numbers, but B seems sweetly unaware of it. “I been giving you guys free stuff,” he says. “You don’t have to listen to me. You don’t have to watch me.”
This kind of naked earnestness maybe seems odd of someone who manipulated songs and tags into the names of celebrities, in order to optimize himself, slipping into certain orbits of the YouTube search function. It feels sort of cynical unless you consider it a path in, a useful bridge or portal into unstudied strangeness. Typing a well-known name ensnares you in an unknown. This was sort of the idea of the internet, right? This nonlinear migration into pure wonder and apprehension. Lil B swiveling there in the darkness, full of love.
Overheard: “What do we call him?” “Lil B?” “Mr. B?” “Professor B?”