Album Review: Lil' B - Black Ken

I got into rapper Lil’ B towards the end of 2014; prior to that, I had tried, and despite my best efforts, I didn’t understand him. Even after immersing myself in his ridiculously deep canon, I’m not 100% certain I still understand—I, like many of you, may just be along for the ride.

Who is Lil’ B?

Born Brandon McCartney, B is not even 30 years old yet, but in a short amount of time, he has become a prolific underground rap figure as well as an esoteric pop culture icon. He blurs lines and confuses—not only with the distinction between what he releases as an ‘album,’ and what he puts out as a ‘mixtape,’ the kind of music he makes, as well as with his identity. Is he Lil’ B? Is he The Based God? Are they one in the same? Are they different? Is this like a God/Jesus situation where both are referred to as ‘The Lord?’

It’s tough to keep up sometimes.

Since beginning his career roughly a decade ago, McCartney has nearly 60 releases to his name. Following up 2015’s Thugged Out Pissed Off (a whopping 63 song collection), Lil’ B has returned with the long gestating and oft-rumored project Black Ken—an effort that finds the rapper more focused and accessible than ever, rivaling his 2011 album I’m Gay (I’m Happy) as what could be considered a good starting point to ease your way into Basedworld.

Boasting huge sounding production values and beats created by McCartney himself, Black Ken is an impressive step forward for Lil’ B as a producer and rapper. While he has a rabid following that love everything he does, I don’t think I would ever say that McCartney is, like, a great rapper all of the time. Sometimes it’s tough to tell what it is he is doing and going for—on Thugged Out Pissed Off, he has a song called “Flexin Maury Povich,” where an entire verse is made up of the phrase “Flexin’ Maury Povich.” There are songs and lyrics weirder than that throughout his entire canon, but on Black Ken, he manages to reel in some of his idiosyncratic habits.

Sure, there are times where McCartney’s flow harkens back to Kurtis Blow-level clumsiness, but, as with everything related to Lil’ B, you have to wonder if it’s all part of the act. Is it satire? Is it a comment on rap and hip-hop as genres and art forms? Is it an homage to those who came before him? As a listener, it’s so tough to tell sometimes because McCartney effortlessly confounds; and at times I wonder if he can even tell anymore between what is satire and what is serious.

Black Ken is lengthy—27 tracks and well over 80 minutes—but it’s not inaccessible, and throughout, McCartney works back and forth through various sounds and styles: at times he channels the angry, confrontational end of rap music; other times, he just wants to goof off and have fun. There are songs that have big, airy synths that wouldn’t sound out of place on Top 40 radio; there are songs that feature the same, chintzy MIDI keyboards McCartney has always used in his career. And like, so many figures in rap music, he paints himself as a complex, contradictory figure. There are sharp contrasts tonally throughout Black Ken—as a whole, I feel like McCartney is a pretty positive, optimistic guy, but that doesn’t always come through in his music. On “Ride (Hold Up)” he waxes about bringing a gun with him into a club; again, is this fact, or rap music fiction?

Despite the contrasts and contradictions, and the near constant shifts in the sonic palate that McCartney uses, Black Ken is surprisingly cohesive and overall, a relatively fun listen from beginning to end. There is nothing as poignant or stark as McCartney’s highwater mark “No Black Person is Ugly” included in this set—and that’s okay. That would be a tough one to top. And yes, it loses steam in the third act with the sequence of Latin-tinged tracks before finding its way again with a mix of both positive and rather aggressive songs before concluding.

A song like “Wasup Jojo,” with its simple refrain, is incredibly infectious; a song like “Free Life” harkens back ever so slightly to a West Coast sound from the early 1990s before it tosses in a bunch of dissonant keyboards and an out of place saxophone solo—but it is never not interesting; and there is the unfuckwithable, intense run of five songs beginning with “Young Ni**az,” and ending with the aforementioned “Ride (Hold Up),” all of which boast abrasive, club ready synthesizers and encourage the listener to get wild.

Early on in the album, on “DJ BasedGod,” McCartney boasts, “My name’s Lil’ B and I saved hip hop.” It’s a bold statement, but there is some truth to it. Save for a few marquee name artists in the genre that still consistently deliver, there isn’t a lot of interesting or noteworthy things happening in rap music. In order to save hip hop, Brandon McCartney had to destroy it. Lil’ B—as a character, an idea, a pop culture icon, a rapper, a producer—is a hip hop deconstructionist. Yes, both he and his music can be weird and his affect can be polarizing, but no matter what you think, Lil’ B is a fascinating phenomenon, and Black Ken is continued proof of that. It’s an album that injects creativity and oddball humor back into the genre as a reminder that sometimes, maybe we don’t need to take ourselves so seriously.

Thank you Based God indeed.  

Black Ken is out now via BasedWorld Records.