Lil B - "Unchain Me"
Judging a book by its cover is wrong, but an exception can be made for Lil B’s Im Gay. Hip-hop has long fostered a homophobic atmosphere, which has been one of the many limits of the genre the enigmatic rapper has attacked in his short career. When Lil B announced the title for this project he drew a lot of attention, but for anyone who’s been following his music it was a welcome and almost expected step. Because he’s never been one to shy away from the uncomfortable, the ways in which Lil B shirks away from the statements he made in announcing the album title are shocking and more than a little disappointing. Instead of something that really pushed any boundaries we got a postscript in parentheses on the album cover and a record full of content that would be better titled as Im Black. Or better yet, Im Lil B.
Ignoring the title (or applying a new one), helps the music itself fit better into the Lil B narrative. Im Gay, sonically, makes complete sense. In nearly every way it is a step forward for the rapper. It’s solid and, although more eclectic than you could get from many other rappers, surprisingly consistent for a Lil B album.
The most basic difference you get in an album from Lil B rather a mixtape from Lil B lies in the sound quality of the songs. He records nearly all his mixtapes at around 96kbps, an unconscionably low fidelity. It adds to the slapshot approach and the just-don’t-give-a-fuck air around the music. On an album like this one - he cares. He records at CD quality, and the difference is so noticeable it barely registers as the same rapper.
That increase in effort then extends to the rapping itself. Gone are the songs declaring him Paris Hilton or Bill Clinton and the rampant misogyny that comes up in his less-structured work. Here, Lil B is on his social-consciousness soapbox. From nearly any other unproven rapper, that’s a pretty bad place to be. But because it’s social consciousness via Lil B, it somehow works. Where Lil B differs from other rappers dedicated to enacting social change through music is that he is completely devoid of anger; instead of preaching revolution he professes that he wants everyone to love themselves. He is child-like in intentions, which in some ways offers more solutions than criticisms. Because of that earnestness, his insights often come across as unspecific, uplifting and occasionally pretty tragic.
Individually, the songs are still very stream of consciousness. Lil B touches on wide-ranging issues such as racism, poverty, violence, fame and many, many more. He doesn’t seem to have any desire to gather himself and compose any real narrative or thematic motion apart from what’s out in the open. However, as negative as that might sound, it’s ultimately compelling and interesting. Because the beats, quality, and content are all improved from his mixtapes, that compulsiveness sounds more like a defined style than a lazy brand of rap.
The best track on the record is “Unchain Me,” mostly because it’s a product of his striking partnership with the innovative producer Clams Casino. It boasts the same blown-out, alien-yet-welcoming effect as their previous efforts together. “I Seen That Light” has been the track to get the most attention off of the album so far, and it’s another worthy candidate for the position of album standout. Part of Lil B’s charm is that in almost every track there is at least one potent line delivered in such a throwaway fashion it’s rarely noticed. In Im Gay, those lines are out in the open and far more abundant, which makes every song on here worth listening to.
The comparison I find myself making in a desperate attempt to express the greatness of Lil B to new listeners is between him and The National. Granted, on the surface, both sonically and intellectually, there are literally no similarities. The only place any comparisons come into play is when taking into account the high point of entry both acts have for their music to really click. The National’s brand of complex, brooding indie rock takes a while to sink in. I found myself with Boxer on repeat based solely on the recommendations of trusted friends and critics until each hidden melody and deliberate line had me listening to it for months on end, based solely on compulsion: I couldn’t go back to anything else. B is the same way, his brand of sloppily put together and conceptually disorganized hip-hop needs an extraordinary amount of listens before it’s going to connect. All any reviews or recommendations can do is hint at the hidden depths and importance. It’s up to you to put in the work to meet him halfway.
If you haven’t done that, I’m not entirely sure this album can do much for you. It’s Lil B sounding his best; coherent, polished and staying well away from the truly weird tropes he’s brought into existence. Which is a great sign for first time listeners or those only familiar with “Wonton Soup.” This is definitely worth a listen, and will change perceptions. At the same time, his relentlessly earnest positivity is sort of strange in and of itself, and as someone who “gets” Lil B and what he’s doing, I can’t say for certain that it makes for a singular, good piece of art. It relies heavily on the cult of personality he’s been cultivating for the past year or so to elevate itself to something that could be considered a great album. This is, at best, a great Lil B album. But it shows promise that the divisive rapper has it in him to go on to really shake things up, even if this isn’t the album he did it on.