21-year-old Brandon McCartney is out to shake up the world of hip-hop. Alongside friends the Odd future posse (a group of teenagers from Los Angeles dealing in gluten-thick, spaced-out hip-hop), McCartney is the leading light of a new movement more concerned with self-lacerating rhymes than guns and bling. As alter-ego Lil B, he has a sizeable online following, with fans tuning in to his stream-of-consciousness flow and aligning themselves with a rapper more than willing to splatter his soul against the wall. It’s a style, he says, that came out of “free- styling 900 songs” at rap battles in his teens, and it’s displayed in fine form on his recent LP Rain In England. In an age in which commercial rap has become more guarded than ever, McCartney is battering down doors that were previously slammed firmly shut.
Speaking down the phone from a studio in California, after a day being tracked by cameras from MTV and V ice, McCartney comes across as respectful and humble – up to a point. “It’s a blessing out of God’s hands,” he says of his meteoric rise. “I’m pushing the standards. There aren’t a lot of artists who are unsigned and on MTV. I am a new generation and a pioneer. Major labels are good and definitely necessary if you want them to be – but only when it’s the time for you.”
Without the backing of a major label (despite rumours of a close affiliation with 50 Cent’s G-Unit Records) McCartney blew up in spectacular fashion in 2010, taking the potential of modern media platforms and running with it. His YouTube channel is littered with videos for songs and contributions from fans, his blog with free mixtapes and albums. His Twitter teems with the ramblings of a man teetering on the boundary between genius and madness, veering from self-aggrandising rants and sexual threats directed at Kanye West to heartfelt philosophising on the state of the world.
“I say what I want, what I feel,” McCartney says. “I’m not scared to do what I need to do. You know, people respect my work and what I say and that’s a blessing. You just have to use the power wisely.” Which sounds faintly ridiculous, but then again, McCartney isn’t the sort to keep his words in check.
With their predilection for skinny jeans and skateboards, it would be easy to mistake Lil B and the Odd Future gang for another bunch of kids enraptured by the late, iconic artist/producer J Dilla and beatmakers of a similar ilk. But McCartney’s songs are searingly, painfully honest, documenting flaws, frailties and sexual dilemmas alongside the usual boasts and proclamations. He’s a man without a filter, one as likely to sample How to Dress Well as Rick Ross. When asked what records he’s been playing this year, the answer is predictably eclectic: “I’ve been listening to a lot of Rick James, Prince, Arcade Fire, Antony and the Johnsons, Boards of Canada, M83, a whole bunch of artists.”
Like the music he creates, it’s near impossible to define who Lil B is or what he’s about. The outlandish tweets may be stacking up fast online, but get him on the phone and McCartney is not the most garrulous of interviewees. Many enquiries are met with a blunt “Yeah,” others with the sound of crisps being eaten. Some questions are ignored entirely or answered with shout-outs to YouTube. It’s all very bizarre, but oddly fitting. Is it all a long-winded joke at the expense of both the rap world and the hipsters who now follow him religiously? Is he just a kid who hasn’t grown up yet? Or is he really some kind of savant-rap wunderkind, trying to shake up a genre that is in real danger of becoming stale? Ultimately, even McCartney is probably not sure which path he’s meant to be taking. But whichever way his instincts take him, the ride should be fascinating. §