Lil B put his Kurtis Blow costume on and made an album. If you had any sort of reaction to that sentence, there’s your review. But, if you insist… at some point around Pink Flame, Lil B releases started to be viewed in relation to his prior output rather than to the history of rap writ large. The flow of his work was stemmed, at least in a relative sense, the mixtape cycle stretching to months rather than weeks or even days. The BasedGod’s scriptures underwent an essential shift; given time to breathe between successive releases, the listener couldn’t help but view them as having a degree of intentionality that his earlier work lacked. Lil B fandom went from an always-on experience to something resembling that of any other musician, with discrete epochs. At any given moment, one could observe both Lil B’s position and his velocity.
The BasedGod made himself a legend by never failing to indulge his impulses, a feat made more impressive by the fact that he has scarcely repeated himself. His creative ethos has remained essentially unchanged since the days of a hundred Myspace accounts, although it’s much more an expression of his personality than of any particular sonic signature. Enter Black Ken: yet again, Lil B has done something unexpected, but for once, it’s something that we have a non-Lil B frame of reference for. It’s impossible to say whether this is the most or least Lil B album ever. On one hand, Too $hort exists; on the other, the geographic center of Lil B’s music has shifted from Basedworld to the heart of Berkeley, his hometown. Of his entire catalog, Black Ken might be the only entry that I’d have believed the kid from the “Vans” video might someday release. That might not be a good thing. Put another way, it’s Lil B’s first capitulation to convention in a decade.
Luckily, there’s infinite capacity for the Bay Area to be represented on the national stage. The region’s defining sound has always been a bit goofy (cf. the voice of E-40, the mayor of Vallejo), and hearing Lil B over unabashed DJ Slice worship is a treat — doubly so given that the entire tape is self-produced. You can’t listen to Black Ken and come away thinking that it’s anything but fully-realized. That said, it’s exactly that quality that elevates it beyond a mere dalliance; if we’d had a Lil B tape last week and another next month, it’d be a lot easier not to wonder why two years of silence yielded, of all things, an appeal to nostalgia.
The legacy of Black Ken will be instructive in any future discussion of the art/artist delineation; from a musical standpoint, there’s no angle by which it stands out within Lil B’s discography. Should context supercede content, however, the success of an album moves entirely from its effect on the listener to the degree to which the artist achieved their goals. It’s a difficult shift to imagine, not least because there’s no compelling frame through which Lil B’s early, career-defining work can be said to have goals. Even if we accept the primacy of the artist’s desires, it’s more than fair to hold them accountable for setting their sights low. By operating within an established idiom, Lil B confines himself to its (well-explored) limits; as much as I adore the Bay’s rap tradition, playing by its rules never gave us a “No Black Person Is Ugly,” a “Motivation,” or an “I Love You.”