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Lil B at NYU: What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?

Recording artist Brandon
Lil B in Las Vegas, 2011. Photo: Isaac Brekken/Getty Images

Last night, the Berkeley-bred, Internet-beloved rapper Lil B gave a sold-out lecture at NYU’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. It’s possible that this was a beautiful, inspiring event, at which people rallied joyously around a quirky young entertainer’s timely message of empathy and kindness. It’s also totally possible that the whole thing was an epic tragedy, in which a young man’s urgent plea for basic human dignity was repeatedly laughed at by stoned college kids who preferred to shout catchphrases at him while finding his existence hilarious. I think it mostly depended on where you sat, and who was sitting near you.

For years now, Lil B has been flooding the Internet with so much free music that it feels less like a catalogue of releases and more like uninterrupted access to every last idea that flows through his mind. (His latest mixtape was released just in time to serve as “coursework” for the lecture; the first track is titled “NYU.”) Some of those ideas are colorful and absurdist in a way that makes for easy online meme-ification, which accounts for the guy at the Kimmel Center dressed up like a chef, or the guy who decided to fill in quiet moments by yelling “Wonton Soup!” But the overarching message is defiantly non-absurd: It’s all about “based” living, positivity, and a level of love and openness toward other humans that might, in a very different time and place, have netted Lil B religious followers, as opposed to mock-religious undergrads who enjoy yelling “thank you, Based God” while he’s trying to talk.

Lil B did not take the stage at NYU with a neatly organized speech about this worldview because, as he put it, “you can’t write down love.” Instead, he just spoke, rambled, free-associated, and frequently reminded the audience how much he appreciated them and wanted to hear their thoughts. (He heard plenty: Much of the audience stood throughout his one-hour appearance, whooping, laughing, and shouting commentary.) If anyone has ever questioned Lil B’s earnest dedication to his home-brewed everyman philosophy of love, they can stop: The guy’s ideas are deeply felt. This was not, he said, an easy place to get to. “I had to train myself,” he said. “I didn’t just become a happy person, you feel me? I lied to myself for a while. Because I had to train myself. I wasn’t always positive, because when I was younger, I think I was so busy in trying … like, being cool, just really being cool, that was my biggest thing.”

This was met, like most everything else, with a mixture of laughter and cheers.

And now? “I go to sleep, I’m so happy — you know why? Because I know I’m living what I’m talking about. I go to sleep at the end of the day, I’m like” — and here he mimed sleeping like a baby. “It feels so good to be honest.” He mimed mumbling peacefully in his sleep: “Honesty … integrity … loyalty … passion … friendship.”

Someone in the crowd yelled: “Are you a brony?”

Lil B announced he had recorded a track, forthcoming, with “pretty much the biggest artist on earth,” as well as a rock album. He offered praise and salutes to “everyone that’s genuinely here for learning and love”; to white blood cells; to rappers including Jay-Z, Birdman, and Mack Maine; to medical researchers and architects; to watercolors; to “the silent, beautiful American people that go unheard”; and to the fact that “all our kids are gonna be friends.” He said the main goals in his personal life included “taking my time and respecting women, respecting others,” but demurred on applause for that — “that’s obvious. To respect women and respect others is obvious.” He told us to “put empathy and love in your heart” and “make an effort to learn about people.” He said “the secret of life — one of the secrets — is if you look at everybody like they’re a baby. Don’t be so hard on people.”

Keep in mind that the general vibe surrounding this was a lot more like a comedy club than a self-help seminar.

Lil B is not the world’s most articulate public speaker; his sentences tend to rush off into Palinesque tangles, fragments, and false starts. But much like with his music, his train of thought can wind up in touching places. “When I was a younger man,” he said, “it was crazy, like, you know, you grow up, and like, you don’t even, I remember like — I didn’t even know how to walk.” Was he talking about being a bay? No; he was talking about self-consciousness. “I was like, wondering how I was walking. I was in high school, like, ‘Am I walking weird?’ Really so conscious, though, and so hard on myself.” Which is, if you ask me, honest and thoughtful and maybe just a dash of stonerishly profound — imagine, that we human animals can be so socially self-conscious that we’re unsure how to walk from one place to another — though the NYU Local Twitter account soon enough summarized it as “Lil B just admitted that he did not know how to walk until high school.”

I don’t mean to be too hard on the portion of the room that kept laughing — laughing even as Lil B reminded us, in response to one question, that all of our parents will one day die. (“No, seriously! Serious, serious, serious, serious!”) The way he speaks — open, guileless, grandiose, and a little muddled — is smile-inducing; there’s a level of giggling amazement that can’t be helped. The guy’s philosophy is a lot like a stoned college kid having suddenly giggly epiphanies about the sheer size and complexity of the world. At one point, he took a moment to marvel at the way our brains can tell our hands to move, a thought common to entry-level users of psilocybin mushrooms. He marveled at the building we were in, and the fact that someone, at some point, built it. He marveled at the way we are, you know, just one small particular slice of humanity in a long string of humans to have walked the planet. Then he digressed to talking about insects, and an ant infestation in his house that he’d been observing — “just studying them, and respecting them” — and wondered whether we might ever be able to understand how ants communicate.

Yes, these are things that kids in countless smoke-filled dorm rooms can think through with real gravity while still laughing uncontrollably. And there’s something similarly wonderful about the idea of Lil B having ascended, Buddha-style, into an unlikely world where he can release beautifully sloppy stream-of-consciousness mixtapes about blow jobs and inner peace, for free, monthly, and delight college kids by being one of those rare personalities who makes “trying to be a nice person” seem strange, brave, and provocative. (Also, I should confess that the single loudest laugh on my tape recording of the lecture is my own, from the moment when a list of things Lil B dislikes culminated, improbably, with hydraulic fracking.) But one really couldn’t help noting with dismay that some small portion of Lil B’s fan base is inevitably going to be made up of the kind of young man who likes to engage with oddball black musicians in a fashion resembling middle-school boys making their overweight or developmentally disabled peers dance. Who will yell “talk about weed” while Lil B is talking about turning the other cheek. Who, when Lil B asks what people are at NYU for, will find it interesting to yell “second-degree murder” in response. And they will do this, with the same goonish love of absurdity as the average Internet troll’s, while listening to a rapper who spends an incredible amount of time pointing out to them how toxic it is.

At some point, he was offering a warning about the number of predators in the music industry, in business in general …

Sexual predators,” someone shouted, I suppose in an effort to be funny.

But Lil B is just not funny like that. Lil B’s impulse is not just to take the interjection — with a Will Ferrell–character level of guilelessness — at face value, but to try to say something supportive to the many people he knows to exist in the world who have actually been sexually assaulted. “We’ve dealt with that,” he said. “That’s very uncomfortable for all of us. But I want to tell you — anybody in here who went through hardships like that, or anything — the best thing I can tell you is forgive, cleanse your soul, and forgive yourself. Don’t be hard on yourself.” This — the sound of a guy abandoning all consciousness of the cool way to walk, and trying, in his own halting self-made way, to be really, really good — was greeted by cheers, and laughter, and ironic cheers, and someone yelling, “Thank you, Based God.”

Watch video excerpts from Lil B’s lecture at Rap Radar.
Listen to the whole talk on Soundcloud.

Lil B at NYU: What’s So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding?