Photography by Brandon McCartney
Who could’ve dreamt up a guy like Lil B? Recently, the 25-year-old rapper born Brandon McCartney was on MSNBC, supporting Bernie Sanders for the upcoming presidential election. A week prior, he’d appeared on CNN, assuring a reporter he wouldn’t level a curse against Hillary Clinton, Sanders’ opponent in the primaries. That’s just what he’d done months before, condemning a basketball player named James Harden for using his signature cooking dance without thanking him for it. Harden’s team flunked out of the playoffs, and Lil B was the toast of the sports media, as pundits from ESPN and FOX Sports pledged allegiance in some kind of mock deference.
But how mocking was it? Who else has accomplished what Lil B has? The unsigned rapper from unsung Berkeley, California, commands a Twitter following well over a million, for whom he’s known to tweet daily affirmations. (I’ll never forget this gem from November 14, 2010: “all my people that have mild depression or severe dont worry because theres someone that loves u! and hes a rapper with gold teeth —Lil B.”) As he’s quick to point out, he follows a million people back, too, all by his own hand—no help from a manager or publicist, which he says he’s never had. At 19, he published a self-help book, and he has lectured to packed rooms at NYU and MIT. And above all, over the past six years, across dozens of mixtapes and at least one self-produced instrumental album, Lil B has released over 100 hours of free music.
In all of this is, he has cultivated the philosophy of “based,” which, as he told Complex in 2010, is loosely defined as “turning a negative into a positive”—embracing stereotypes so as to invert them for good. In practice, that leads to a lot of contradictions. Lil B is responsible for some of rap’s most warmhearted songs of all time—including two called “I Love You”—and some of the genre’s most demeaning. He calls himself a feminist and has tweeted frequently about gender equality, but he’s also released “Child Support Me,” an openly misogynistic song in which he threatens to slap and murder a woman for asking him to help care for their child. For every “Ban the Weapons” he puts out, there’s another “Shoot a Gun.” The ideas are so many, and at times so at odds with each other, that it’s hard to know which to take seriously. Sometimes he expresses everything at once: on one recent song, “What’s Next,” he says he’s “spraying [bullets] for peace.”
Occasionally, fans call Lil B out for crossing some line, and he’s been known to acknowledge his ignorance, point out the potential in himself to learn, and apologize. Not long before his appearance on MSNBC, he tweeted a joke about transgender people. He was criticized for it online and, shortly after, admitted to being transphobic, then used part of his airtime to urge for greater protections of LGBT communities. More stirring than any concert, perhaps this is Lil B’s greatest performance: to stand as proof that anyone can get better.
In his very acts of intolerance—both intentional and unwitting—Lil B implicitly preaches acceptance of intolerant people. His fondness for provocation makes him something like a free speech advocate, defending the right to say the wrong thing. Still, one hopes for just a little more—that a man so outspoken about learning, justice, and equality could educate himself before he needs to be corrected, to find a way of being that precludes the need to apologize. It’s easy to say “I love you.” It’s harder to act like you mean it. In this rare, wide-ranging interview, I ask Lil B to explain his confusing approach to preaching positivity. Is he a genius, two steps ahead, or merely a guru perched atop a mountain of cognitive dissonance? Can a person be both?
When you were a teenager, your group The Pack was signed to a major label. But as a solo artist, you’ve never wanted that. Why not?
It’s not that I never did, I just knew I could do things myself, and I liked having control of the Lil B experience. I wasn’t trying to split up anything with nobody. I don’t have any contracts, so I don’t have to split any money up. That was my main thing—just making sure I’m taking care of myself and taking care of Lil B. Just learning to survive, for myself and as a human in America. I’m definitely not opposed to major labels.
Why do it yourself then?
That’s just naturally how it came. As an artist, I just loved hearing my verses. I loved hearing myself rap. And I’m an only child.
What did your mom think of you becoming a rapper?
She was not the biggest supporter and not the biggest motivator of me personally. She didn’t really believe in my dreams until I made her believe in them. But she came around once she saw people starting to gravitate toward me.
Where did “based” come from? As The Pack, you called yourselves “based boys.”
It really came from tripping, just tripping out. It was something that we all embraced, and it was something that I really took to heart. I just took it to that next level, just with being loyal to based.
When did Based God start being a thing?
After I started based freestyling. Just spending a lot of time learning about myself and entering a higher level within my mind. I was exploring my mind, and I ended up finding the Based God.
For years, you released music almost constantly—a new mixtape every month. But that’s slowed down recently. Why?
I wanted to live a little bit this year. I wanted to refocus my meditation and get in tune with the art, in tune with the music. In order to get new things to rap about, you’ve gotta live. I don’t want to force anything.
With your TV appearances, a lot of people are getting to know you from things besides music. Does that worry you?
Nah, it doesn’t worry me. My music speaks for itself. I’ve always had a plan. All this is just extra for me. It’s not like I asked for it.
Do you think you’ll write another book?
Yup, always in the process. Been in the process for years now. People definitely want it, but I’m keeping it private and putting that away.
“We’re all a work in progress. No one’s perfect. There’s things I have to deal with that I was born into that I might not totally agree with.”
How did you first come up with the idea to do lectures?
That was something that the student body wanted from me. Being mature, that was just something I was naturally gravitating towards, and something that I knew I wanted to do: to express my viewpoint and give lessons about how I’m thinking, what I care about. It’s honest and natural.
You get paid, right?
Oh yeah, of course.
Does it pay better than doing a concert?
Ah, you see, I haven’t been doing too many concerts this year, so you already know, man.
And you live pretty simply, too.
I’m a real guy. I’m not money-laundering. I make money off music, and music is my source of income. It feels good. I’m not selling T-shirts, I’m not doing none of that other crap. Straight music.
You get pretty upset when people sell merchandise with your name on it.
Yeah, because people are lame, man. I’ve seen y’all write about some girl who did some dress for her college, and Katy Perry wore it. Man, tell her to calm down. I don’t ask people to make—you know what I mean? Everybody keeps making stuff of me. Why don’t you make something else? Chill.
Don’t you think it’s out of love?
Nah, because they’re selling it. It ain’t out of love. If it’s out of love, make it and wear it, but keep it to yourself. I saw something for $1,000 or something? Get a life.
Your issue with James Harden was him doing the cooking dance without acknowledging you. Why does it feel so disrespectful for someone to do your dance?
I don’t have a team working for me. No publicist, no manager, no label. It’s all me. It’s all real. I am Lil B. You called me directly. When you do things differently, you take things personally.
“Shout out to dog fans. The love of animals is always there with me.”
At the same time, you don’t always credit producers, and you’ve said you don’t pay for beats, either.
I mean, I never ask people to send me beats. These producers send me beats because they want Lil B to bring them to life. If producers want credit, send those beats to people who will give them credit. There’s only a couple people that kept it real, and they know who they are. All these producers, they try to come into Based World and say, “I produced for Lil B,” and try to reap the benefits of that—they didn’t do anything.
That’s just surprising to me, since you want credit for the dance but won’t credit the guy who made the beat for it. Why is that?
Because I’m real hip-hop, I’m real rap, I’m an MC. I record over MP3s. Send the beats, send a piece of rock, and I’ll make it a hit.
A few years ago, you said you were going to wear the same pair of Vans until you made a million dollars. Is that still your goal?
I mean, that’s not the only goal. That hasn’t really been on my mind. I just keep it real. My thing is getting back to the music, because people really want that. Getting back in Basedworld Studios.
But the shoes—
I haven’t ditched them. Still wear them.
Do you live with anybody?
Nah. Definitely not.
You were at the gym earlier today, which I want to point out because I think a lot of people have a perception of you just sitting on the computer all day.
Definitely. When you follow a million-plus people on Twitter by your hands, by yourself, no bots, you’ve gotta take a little break and do other things. I don’t want to get arthritis. Plus I’m a writer, too, so you’ve gotta take it easy.
I’ve heard people say that you must have other people writing your tweets, because there’s just so many.
That’s disrespectful, man. People gotta stop disrespecting me. That’s crazy.
How often are you recording now? You mentioned recently that you’d been out of the studio for months.
I’m always working, though. I’m always working.
“I don’t have a team working for me. No publicist, no manager, no label. It’s all me. It’s all real. I am Lil B. You called me directly. When you do things differently, you take things personally.”
Your music has always been about contradictions, expressing love on one song and hate on another. What’s that about for you, to always do both?
It’s just my personality. You’ve just gotta know me. You have to wait to see my plans. Everything has always been planned out. You have to just wait to see what I’ve got in store.
When your songs are the opposite of your personality on Twitter or in your lectures, I think it’s hard for people to understand.
I can’t be fake, you know. I just have to do what feels natural to me. That’s just what I do.
Particularly the way you talk about women in your songs—you say things that are sexist to the point where I feel like you’d be mad at yourself. Why do you do that?
It’s art. Some people like R-rated movies.
I’m surprised you say that, when you talk so passionately about loving everyone.
I truly care about people, and I know I’m not perfect. Half of my life was about acquiring street knowledge and being inquisitive. I think that’s important.
You rapped a lot early on about how you were facing jail.
That’s when I was a teenager. I was probably 15 years old. My brain was just developing, and I was trying to be accepted, figure out my place in society. That’s why I feel for young kids. They’ve got a lot that they go through, situations that they have to learn from and make it out of. That was a real learning period and definitely something that’s a part of me, but it doesn’t define me.
Did you finish high school?
I haven’t finished yet, but I’m looking forward to finishing.
Where did your love of animals come from?
Even from a young age, I would pick out dogs that were looking for adoption on the weekend and let them stay with me. I’d take them out for the weekends and hang out with them, let them stay at the house. Shout out to dog fans. The love of animals is always there with me.
“I think you’d be more disappointed if I didn’t make a song like ‘Child Support,’ if you thought I was only one way but I was also really another. It’s all true.”
And you made a song with your cat.
That’s Keke, an adopted tabby cat, the first animal in hip-hop. We’ve got some stuff in the works. I mean, a cat has a personality. It has feelings, and I can sense that. It’s like having a kid or a family member.
Are you a vegetarian?
No, but I respect the vegan lifestyle. One day I might be doing it. We’re all a work in progress. No one’s perfect. There’s things I have to deal with that I was born into that I might not totally agree with. I’m learning, re-learning, figuring out better ways to survive.
What else did you learn growing up that you’re trying to change?
I think all of my family believe in what Americans believe in, but nothing was really forced upon me, except when I was younger. Catholic school, that was forced upon me. Other than that, nothing much.
Do you believe in God?
You do this thing on Twitter called Girl Time, basically asking women to send you pictures. What’s going on there?
That’s something about the person that I am. That’s just something that’s just to me. It’s something you’ve gotta keep to the neck. But that was something that happened really organically.
What is the point of it? What do you do with the pictures?
For me, what I think Girl Time is about is just showing the beauty in every woman. Every single piece of beauty. What I think it’s about—I’m not the only person that’s involved in Girl Time, but it definitely helps. My perspective about Girl Time is just about showing all beauty.
This is what I was talking about before—how do you say that and then say what you say on “Child Support Me”?
I mean, sometimes you just say things because you aren’t going to do them. I would rather just say something, you know, than actually do it. You should talk about things and let them out.
On Twitter, you’ve apologized really earnestly when people have called you out, like after your joke about being trans.
Yeah, I love that people are really paying attention and really respond and care what I talk about. There are things where I have fun and throw out my personality, and so I might say something that might not be as tasteful or totally representative of my morals or whatever. That was a slick joke, and then you learn.
My favorite songs of yours are also the most positive. They can be really hopeful.
You know, that’s why I make them. It’s a personal experience, and people gravitate to different ones for different reasons, but it’s all from the heart.
You have multiple songs called “I Love You.” Why is that an important thing to say?
It’s always a balance. I like to be transparent, and I like to be honest. I think you’d be more disappointed if I didn’t make a song like “Child Support,” if you thought I was only one way but I was also really another. It’s all true.