On a Saturday afternoon in Berkeley, Lil B stood in front of a packed amphitheater in a tangerine blazer and a long, flowing floral skirt. “Life is about giving,” he told the crowd at the Berkeley Art Museum & Pacific Film Archive, now well past the hour mark in his lecture, “And I want to give way more. This is not enough. I’ve given a lot, but I want to give way more.”
Here, at his first-ever art show, the artist’s generosity had already been fully on display. Earlier, a long wall in the amphitheater had been lined with a collection of artwork, neatly organized into two adjacent grids on the wall. On the right were 100 4x6 photos, disposable-size, shot by B over the last few years. B’s relationship with photography, he reminded me later, dates back to 2010, and the photos he took for the artwork for Dior Paint and Rain in England. Like the photos for England (coincidentally, one of a select few collectable items B’s ever approved for release), the shots featured here drew mainly from the natural world and architecture, with a few trademark portraits of girls for good measure. The bottom row of the grid started with pictures of street debris and cracks in the sidewalk, building upward into layers of flowers, trees, buildings, and finally sky. As the show’s co-curator, David Wilson, told me, the order emerged only as they were arranging. Next to the podium was a table full of Based artifacts: photo printouts, a signed copy of the new XXL issue he’s featured in, the keyboard he used to make the beats on last year’s full-length, Black Ken.
Halfway through his speech, B let everyone in attendance know they were free to take whatever they wanted, including the work on the walls. In true Basedworld fashion, things unfolded spontaneously from there. After the proclamation, a fan sitting in the second row walked up and cautiously gestured toward the magazine and a disposable camera, raising his eyebrows to ask for the Basedgod’s blessing. A few minutes later, seats were emptied, pieces on the wall were peeled off, and the table was mostly cleared. Meanwhile, the lecture paused for an impromptu meet-and-greet, where B doled out hugs, photo ops, and genuine conversation to at least a few dozen folks.
In a freewheeling talk, the artist reflected on a year that’s been eventful, though not always easy. He talked about his self-produced opus, Black Ken, about mental health and managing anxiety, and about processing trauma, connecting the dots from getting bullied as a kid to getting jumped by A Boogie and friends last year. Like lots of his best moments, the lecture was a sweeping confessional, full of big questions (“What do y’all think is in the afterlife? Is that even a good question?”) but decidedly uplifting. At the end, B led the crowd in a chorus of “I’m happy to be alive” and “I love you,” for which we were encouraged to point at those sitting around us. Afterwards, we got a chance to chat.
Was an art show something you had been wanting to do for a while?
It was something that I always wanted to do. I’ve been having all these photos and I wanted to premiere them and give them out to the people. At first, what I was really gonna do was sell them. But this is the best place, I feel like, for my art to be released into the world. If anywhere, it should start here.
What does it mean to do it at home in Berkeley?
It still hasn’t hit me yet. This is amazing. It’s still sinking in. This one of those things where after a couple years you see the magnitude. But for me, this is just so amazing and important, it’s hard to put into words.
Is it gratifying to bring what you do to a more institutional space?
It’s very gratifying. You wanna cry, because that shows me that people care. And they care about me. And I don’t mean to sound selfish — it means they care about us — I don’t look at myself different from anybody else. It shows that Berkeley really does care about the individual.
I noticed a lot of the shots are of nature. What is it about nature that draws you in?
I see the beauty in nature. I just like to see and put out what I think is beautiful. And put my swag on it, and my style, and how I feel. Everything I stand for, I put into the photos. You a legend to me, so I’ma give you that right photo. I’ll take a photo of you right now, I’ll show you.
[B snaps a few pics of me on his phone. After about 15 shots, we scroll through together.]
What was behind the choice to give all the work away? What do you want people to take away from this?
Love. Respect. More human energy. Artistic inspiration. I want people to continue to be creative and to value creativity. Because I value everything that I gave away. Like I said, I was gonna sell it first, but I didn’t because this is Berkeley, this is right. And this is history. You gotta give it away.
Is it hard to give things you make away?
Yeah it was at first, but once I realized what this is for, who this is going to affect, I said, “Who am I to sell these?” Eric Andre was trying to buy a picture — one of my drawings. I was like, Ooh shit I’ma sell Eric Andre that. But I ended up giving it away. I feel good though, I feel really good. Everybody here deserves it.
You just put most of your discography up on streaming services. Did you not want it up there before? How did you make that decision?
I was doing well with where it was. It’s kinda like I didn’t know how big it was. A lot of different components went into that, you know, keeping it off [meant] keeping it rare. I didn’t drop any music for a year [before Black Ken] and I came back, and hella shit has changed. I’m kinda glad I waited. The music industry has changed for the better for artists, but honestly, it only behooves you to wait.
Does it feel different now? It’s not necessarily the same as selling a CD to a customer but does it feel different now that so much of your catalog isn’t completely free?
It’s a new medium. It feels different because you can tell people to download your new mixtape and [all of a sudden] everybody got it. You can tell everybody that got an iPhone just go on Apple Music. A few years ago, everybody was downloading off of DatPiff, Limewire, DigitalDripped. But it’s all mainstream now, music is even more mainstream.
With the music, and on social media, there are times where you’re super vocal and you’re getting a lot of ideas out. And then there are times where we don’t hear from you as much. How do you decide when it’s the right time for people to hear your voice?
I just like to keep it natural. When you’re not hearing my voice, I’m working on art. So if you’re not hearing me, I’m working for the people and getting inspired. I’m mad I can’t write everything off on my taxes, because I’m living (laughs) — like I live for y’all, I live to put this art out. So when you don’t hear from me, I’m getting inspired and I’m going through stuff. Recently, I’ve been like, I’m gonna let this music speak and go crazy. And do what I’ve been doing, like the blueprint that I set for the music industry, get back to that.
You talked a little bit about Kanye up there. Can you elaborate a little more about why you think it’s important for him to be speaking his mind right now?
Well first, I feel like Kanye might be a little overworked. I can relate to him as a producer, and being inspired, and sometimes you might not know what you’re talking about. I feel like actually though, it was really good, because it started a conversation again. I’m surprised it got this much uproar.
People are upset.
But then, I’m not [surprised]. If anybody would’ve said [the same things], niggas would’ve been in an uproar. But then there’s people outside of it who actually know history, and facts. I think he should continue to speak his mind—what he feels at his age. And it might not be final, but that’s what he feels.
Why I ask — when he’s saying all this wild shit, or defending Donald Trump, he’s doing it under the banner of love. It strikes me that there are some similarities between how he’s talking and —
Yeah, I mean, I did it before Kanye! (laughs) This might sound bad, but you know, Donald Trump, you can relate to him. His game is just cold, like a player, like pimpin’. He makes you feel comfortable, but then he’ll put in a law [that shows] he don’t give a fuck about you.
My point is like, people are mad at Kanye — maybe for being disingenuous—but also, I think they’re saying, “How can you love somebody that hurts people the way he does — with words, with policy decisions. I guess my question is, is there a limit to loving everybody? To positivity?
There’s no limits to love. But we’re also seeing how powerful words are. And what Kanye said was just words, but you can see how important they are.
You spoke a lot earlier about mental health, about anxiety, about openness. Why is that an important message for you to get out to people?
I think that it’s important because it’s very relatable. It’s something to get off your chest. If you might not have a therapist, just put it out there. Truth helps people, and people saying whatever they have to say. Speak your piece.
Can I ask the cliche, "what we can we expect on Platinum Flame" question?
It’s different than Black Ken, because on Black Ken, I worked with an engineer on production. On Platinum Flame, I engineered the beats myself, so I produced and engineered them. So this is getting even truer to myself, how I truly feel.
But Platinum Flame — all the questions you’ve been wondering, Platinum Flame is going to answer all that. It’s gonna bring you right back to 2011, 2012, but it’s also 2018. And we just gonna keep evolving.
Now that everything’s out on streaming platforms, are there things in your catalog you’d want people to go back to?
My first official mixtape is a good place to start, Black Ken.
Do you go back to the older tapes?
Yes. I kinda trip off the things produced by the Basedgod, maybe like Choices and Flowers [his 2012 ambient “classical” collection] or Dior Paint. I been on those. I been tripped out because I’ve been making beats and kinda feel like I know what I’m doing now. But then I listen to all that, and I’m like, Whoa, that was a pure place. That was just me trying to get out everything in my system. That’s where I’m coming from as an artist: I gotta get it out no matter where. Whether it’s by phone, whatever medium that will allow me to get it out. [I’ve] also [been] appreciating new types of art. Different things, like chairs.
Were there other artists, or kinds of art, that informed what we saw up there tonight?
Yes. National Geographic inspired me. American Apparel, their photography. I got a comparison to Gordon Parks. That was an honor.
Who made that comparison?
A random lady that I met. I showed her some photos I had been taking, and she told me how you take photos, and how you care about the people in them. I read up about Gordon Parks, and what it said was that he really cared about the people he took pictures of. What this lady told me, was that he would go to poor places, and the photos would look really sad and desperate, but he would give them dignity.
I do that too. I can see the beauty everywhere and show how everybody should be respected. Like the guy that’s cleaning the toilet right there (gesturing to the bathroom), I could take a picture of him and show him in an honorable way. It might take a bunch of pics — 20, 30, 50 pics maybe — but I just keep trying and I’ll give him somehing where he’s like, “OK this is me, and thank you.”