I lost touch with hip hop somewhere in my crucial teen years. In my memory, the breaking point came in the summer of 1991, when I was 16. Bit by bit since about 5th grade, I’d been introduced to rap music by friends and relatives, and by this time considered myself a fan of Run DMC, Whodini, Kool Moe Dee, the Beastie Boys, Public Enemy (the original noise-rap group, suckas), and Ice-T – all probably considered corny oldhead stuff by now. NWA and the Posse was among what I considered the more “hard” end of what I was into at the time, and even with its incoherent stylistic mishmash, I loved it, and while I had kinda missed out on Straight Outta Compton (yeah I know, I was a nerdy white kid from Iowa), I liked what few songs I’d heard from it and was excited for new material from them. But when I heard Efil4Zaggin at my cousin’s house I just couldn’t hang with it.
If you’re going to write songs about getting your dick sucked, I think one per album is probably plenty; the group’s seeming obsession with this one topic just seemed lazy, self-indulgent, and literally masturbatory. I also found the sharp jump in usage of the dreaded “n-word” in lyrics to be distressing, as hearing it, regardless of from whose mouth, had always given me a real twinge of discomfort ever since I was old enough to know what racism is. Thus it was that in the ensuing years, with a few exceptions including The Chronic and a sense that while Ice Cube’s solo work still felt a bit too militant for my young ears he was speaking important truths I would look into once I was ready, it would be to my great chagrin that so much of hip hop ended up following NWA’s lead on those particular points, making gangsta rap mostly very difficult for me to listen or relate to. Since by this time I was just as enamored of thrash metal and industrial music as I had been of hip hop, that’s where my focus ended up turning, and then I discovered the avant-garde, and everything went to hell.
I eventually realized I would just have to get over this aversion to gangsta stuff if I was ever going to make sense out of its cultural hold, because it obviously wasn’t going away. I figured that the only way I could do this was through enough exposure to desensitize myself to its more hard-to-swallow aspects; about a year or so ago I came across a huge zip file someone had uploaded of 1990s underground Memphis mixtapes and resolved to force myself to listen to all of it. By the time I was through maybe half of the folders I was becoming able to appreciate the music, make some judgments as to my favorites, and discover a few excellent artists that were new to me. (Is Princess Loko still out there?) It takes a pretty committed music nerd to fulfill such an enterprise, though.1
And I likely never would have bothered in this quest – apart from such hipster-approved oddities as Das Racist and Death Grips – if not for Lil B. As something of an aficionado of weird Internet culture I first knew of the BasedGod mainly as an interesting Twitter persona, though I was aware he rapped. When news of the release of Thugged Out Pissed Off reached me, I felt I was overdue for checking out his music. This began something of an obsession. I heard an adventurous artist with a fresh outlook taking musical and lyrical risks that were like nothing I’d heard before. Thugged Out Pissed Off is nearly as stylistically bonkers as NWA and the Posse but also something like three hours long, yet I think I ended up listening to it at least half a dozen times in a row. It doesn’t all quite land, but when it does it hits hard with a unique mix of brutal honesty and his own exclusive brand of gonzo gangsta mythos, two things which had seemed to my mind rather at odds before. It was clear that Lil B was up to something special.2
So I was among those eagerly anticipating Black Ken, which delivers even beyond what I could have hoped for. That couple years off BasedGod took to further develop his already compelling skills pays off big. Lil B wrote, produced, played and rapped everything here – only one other soul is credited, a short rap by someone called ILOVEMAKONNEN that, in a tastefully chopped form, provides the hook for “Go Global”. Everything other than that vocal is 100% pure BasedGod and absolutely kills in at least a half dozen different ways, though not all of them are guaranteed to be your particular cup of lean. (Sorry for the cringeworthy phrase but I couldn’t help myself. I’ve always been about cheezy humor.) The stylistic variety is if anything expanded on, yet presented with cohesion. It hits very experimental points as well as very mersh ones with apparent ease. Depending on the climate where you live, it may yet not be too late to make any or all of Black Ken your 2017 summer jam.
At 27 tracks, Black Ken is another Porterhouse with sides, so strap yourself in. However, it plays out rather like a sequence of four EPs, each exploring different territory in the BasedGod’s galaxy and each potentially pulling in different audiences, so you can easily pick your favorite part if so inclined. Beginning with “Produced By The BasedGod”, an instrumental intro that goes on just long enough to start to get awkward, the tape’s first section is an absolute gift to old farts like myself, an earnest exercise in roots hip hop. Lil B does throwback right; the Doggystyle-esque comic-style cover art is not for nothing. If it’s not to your taste though, don’t make for the exits just yet. For the first couple tracks of this song cycle Lil B has at least updated the lyrical content, cranking the raunch maybe a click or two further than mainstream rappers were willing to go in the old-days. Good Willsmith on Twitter describes this section of the tape pretty well in a couple tweets:
Black Ken sounds like early 90s west coast, self-produced G Funk beats, thick bass & 808s thuds, Based God channeling Too Short & Ice Cube 🙌— Good Willsmith (@GoodWillsmith) August 17, 2017
"DJ Basedgod"— Good Willsmith (@GoodWillsmith) August 19, 2017
Lil B as Marley Marlhttps://t.co/Vt6C2YO44F
"goin to Harlem & then to the Bronx / spit your best lyrics & then you can come"
As for classic rappers Lil B “channels”, I feel like Eazy-E, LL, and early Snoop should make the list. I must admit, however, that Marley Marl is even a touch too old-school of a reference for my immediate familiarity and at this point probably runs the risk of feeling like what ’50s rock-and-roll was like to me as an ’80s kid. We’re going back to the very origins here. You could probably play “DJ BasedGod” and a couple of the songs following it around your kids and not feel too weird about it. That particular track especially sticks out, a hearkening to early-80s NYC (even with its west coast shout-outs) that teeters on the edge of corniness but never quite falls in. It’s pure fun and I can’t stop smiling like a dork throughout its nearly seven minutes. The production is daringly sparse and its sole concession to prevailing trends may be its slower-than-seems-normal tempo and pitch. The track moves along at a leisurely pace, leaving plenty of space for the beat and minimal synth lines to do the talking. In the third verse, we find DJ BasedGod in New York himself, in a rush on his way to do a show, inviting some rando on the subway to come party with him if he’s got bars. Positivity positively flows from “Free Life” and hometown ode “Berkeley” with BasedGod even engaging in some spot-on scratching, or at least picking some pretty killer scratching to sample in – I’m unsure what the state of the vinyl DJ arts is in 2017, if anyone still does this in the classic style, but this sounds great.
A skit introduces the second act where things finally start to get hardcore in a set of the kind of synth-driven club bangers that Lil B introduced on Thugged Out Pissed Off as “Pretty Boy Music.” Despite the heavily turned-up yet dark and dangerous gangsta party atmosphere prevailing over these tracks, Lil B makes an unusually restrained production choice in the drum machine department: big 808 bumps are there where it counts, but you might go half a song without hearing one, leaving fat synth basslines to carry the low-end much of the time. It works though, in setting this sound apart from the pack. In fact, Lil B’s keyboards are very much the star of this whole section, which is why it makes a warped kind of sense to end it with “Hold Up”, a left-field darkwave track that sounds like it could have come from Gary Numan, capping off a night of slinging in the club with a tense after-hours scene in a hood-as-claustophobic-dystopia setting.
Lightening things up abruptly, the third part also begins with an explanatory skit, this one about the need to go party in Mexico before the wall gets built. A couple tropical-themed dancefloor numbers with shout-along hooks lead into, I shit you not, two straight up pop songs with just barely enough irony. Is Lil B making a bid for radio play? BasedGod is about to steal your girlfriend and “Ain’t Me” is an earworm if I’ve heard one.
From here things swing back in a harder direction with the kind of hard-hitting trap-funk that made for many of Thugged Out Pissed Off’s most memorable moments like “Maxwell’s” and “These Parts”. It’s also the most emotionally raw and naked portion of the tape lyrically and vocally. Lil B is especially in his element on this material. “West Coast” couples a vintage g-funk chorus with a pained look into the struggle of the game. “Raw” is true to its name, a nasty, horny fuck rant right along the lines of “Tryna Buy Pu2698y”. Lil B then gets out all the diss venom he needs to on “The Real Is Back”, calling out Soulja Boy among others as fakes. “Rawest Rapper Alive” follows it up in the same overall tempo and cadence like a part-two but with a killer new bassline and chorus, and by now you should need no more convincing of its titular assertion but Lil B still serves up plenty evidence. “Da Backstreetz” repurposes “Hold Up”’s chord progression and melds it to “These Parts”’s rhythm, but this is more of a lament than a boast, touching on the need to maintain a tough front. “My eyes red ‘cause I smoke blunts,” he insists through yet another insanely catchy chorus; “N***as die every day, I don’t give a fuck.” A screwy ring mod effect on the vocal even helps him sound on the point of tears. “Rare Art” takes a trip into BasedGod’s endearing weird side with some plinky keys and awkward phrasing and feels like the tape’s low point but still has some pretty cool lyrics. In fact, Lil B’s lyrics throughout Black Ken are consistently among his best yet, at a level that “I Can’t Breath” previously hinted at.
Black Ken’s outro gets its own intro skit and depicts Lil B emceeing the opening of an imaginary live gig in Hawaii, riding an irresistible feel-good funk vamp while he shouts out his imaginary onstage band and hypes the dubbed-in crowd for the party of their lives. It’s a consciously comical and conceptually over-the-top peek into the BasedGod’s possible aspirations for his live experience and even my antisocial ass wants to go to there.
It’s hard to guess what the future holds and Black Ken feels like it could either be Lil B’s Nevermind or his Tales From Topographic Oceans or in some curious way both. Or maybe neither, but that would require it to be overlooked to a degree that seems unlikely for something this good. It’s a towering artistic achievement with the smell of a titanic watershed about it. I’m probably wrong on that and just geeking out, but you’re fucking up if you don’t check out Black Ken at least once.
I don’t recommend my personal level of music obsessiveness to anyone and sure as fuck don’t judge anyone for being less so. I like to think this separates me from the average hipster, but I’m probably just the music scene equivalent to the lead character in Camus’ The Fall, a sonic judge-penitent. ↩
This would also be my introduction to mixtape website/app DatPiff, which has since brought a wealth of cool new stuff to discover including from some of that old Memphis bunch. Even Public Enemy has some new stuff on there. I still don’t fully understand the use of “mixtape” for what I’m accustomed to calling an “album”, but I figure it probably has something to do with either the legal hurdles of sampling or just keeping the record labels from asserting claim over a work. ↩