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Based and Superstructure

Jacques Attali argued that music anticipates social change earlier than any other cultural form. He wasn’t talking about hip hop, but he might wish he had been. The form was born out of hustle, rapidly morphing to nestle in the contradictions of whatever constellation of economic and technological forces prevails at the time, scraping together artistic and financial survival in creative, illegal and dangerous ways. If you want a barometer for how the next revolution in advanced capitalism will be lived, you should probably look to a rapper. Specifically, you should probably look at Lil B.

The young Berkeley rapper has built a sizable fan base of hip hop fans and hipsters, though not without controversy. Lil B makes music — a lot of music, an incredible amount of music, literally dozens of songs a day — whose artistic merit is, even fans will admit, questionable. He raps in an affectless nasal voice with little regard for the traditional aesthetic qualities of rapping such as rhyme, flow, conceptual coherence. He seems determined to rap about every possible topic (in the words of a recent NPR profile, “cat care and back pain, black liberation and becoming a deity”) over every possible type of music — gabber, opera, juke. I find the music barely listenable, though that hasn’t stopped me from sifting through dozens of his tracks. I want to like Lil B because being a part of his absurd carnival seems like fun.

This is the key to the Lil B phenomenon: he inspires the flurry of social media interaction (often dubbed “participation”) in a movement he calls “Based.” Every day my Twitter feed is choked with “#based” and “#swag,” hashtags derived from Lil B colloquialisms. Tumblrs share images emblazoned with THANK YOU BASED GOD. Recently a fan archived a collection of songs Lil B had uploaded to dozens of cryptic MySpace profiles, 676 in all. The experience of seeing my media feeds cluttered with content about a rapper I don’t like produces a feeling akin to when someone talks to me about American Idol or Survivor: I’m aware of its existence and its significance, but I can’t muster the enthusiasm to turn it into a conversation. I’m not participating.

The reality television metaphor goes a long way towards explaining Lil B’s success. Reality TV has to convince its audience that obviously artificial social situations possess the authenticity of a documentary. It constructs faux transparency through tearful confessionals and constant surveillance. Lil B also produces his own version unparalleled access. He tweets incessantly, offering followers (over 150,000) constant access to his thoughts and actions. He responds to practically every mention of his name, popping up on blogs about him to offer unbridled enthusiastic commentary. His compulsively created stream-of-consciousness raps about his quotidian existence, his fantasies, his contradictory desires promise that no stray thought will be left unrecorded or unheard. Even listening to individual songs produces the feeling of a reality show, waiting for something bizarre, hilariously absurd, or poignant to strike unexpectedly. And then moving on: just as rewatching cheaply produced and aesthetically flat shows like Celebrity Rehab and Jersey Shore feels burdensome, deeply inhabiting any Lil B track seems besides the point. His appeal lies less in listening to the songs he makes than in following the unfolding drama of his prodigious output.

And so, contrary to rappers who flaunt the trappings of financial success, Lil B’s corpus articulates a different phenomena: conspicuous production. It is not the quality of the work as much as that he is always making it and releasing it. That artists must regularly release work to remain in the public eye has long been common sense, and is even more the case under today’s environment of intensified media consumption. Lil B doesn’t just seem happy to oblige this demand for a steady stream of new content; he seems driven by a manic energy that will allow him to do nothing else. This compulsion to produce is not just an element of Lil B’s eccentricity, it is a feature of our new media environments. YouTube and Tumblr and Twitter don’t just enable our participation in media creation, their business models rely on it. We’re goaded to produce and distribute (“share”) to the point where friends worry when regular Facebook updates dwindle and everyone refers to their internet usage in the terms of addiction. Lil B turns this content generation into spectacle.

Hip hop has long drawn power from playing with and perverting existing media forms. N.W.A. detourned the reactionary rage of cop shows and action movies into defiance against these authorities. Raekwon reworked low-level street hustling into pathos-laden mafia sagas. Now hip hop plays with the contours of our 2.0 subjectivites: Lil B is the rapper who pushes the logic of social media production to its most surreal extremes.