Is That Jazz? Lil B’s ‘Afrikantis’
The most fascinating avant-garde jazz album in recent times
Anyone who predicted this is either a time traveler or is clinically insane (probably both). It’s December 2022, everyone’s “best albums of 2022” lists are out, and Lil B has dropped a jazz album.
That’s right: Lil B The Based God, the rapper and motivational speaker who’s perhaps the most detrimentally prolific artist of our time (did anyone actually listen to all eight volumes of his 855 Song Based Freestyle Mixtape?), has made what can loosely be considered a jazz album. Bearing no connection to the long history of avant-garde jazz, the undeniably avant-garde Afrikantis runs an exhausting 71 minutes and 14 tracks. There are no real instruments, no proud eschewing of structure because there’s hardly any acknowledgement of structure to begin with, and you quickly question why Lil B did any of this. But as the man himself tweeted, “THIS MAY BE ONE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT JAZZ PROJECTS EVER… TAKE UR TIME WITH THIS.” There’s a hint of truth there; it’s certainly one of the most interesting jazz records in recent times.
After several listens, one has immense appreciation for Afrikantis’ existence but no more clarification as to why it exists. By relying seemingly exclusively on virtual instruments, Lil B strips away the human element fundamental to jazz; in general, Afrikantis’ instrumental makeup simultaneously sounds too artificial to emulate real musicians but not artificial enough to become convincing electronic music. Still, there’s no shortage of dissonant honking and wailing. To say that this sounds like a third grader receiving their first MIDI keyboard and plugging it into GarageBand is accurate but too cynical. Instead, I’d say that Lil B sounds like Far Side Virtual-era James Ferraro having a grave misunderstanding of Afro-jazz, but with the exploratory playfulness of Haruomi Hosono’s mid-80s Emulator experiments.
About a minute into Afrikantis’ opening track “My Fathers Drums,” it’s already painfully clear that Lil B The Based God has no clue what he’s doing here (that’s a compliment). Nothing coheres at all, and the drums and horns sound completely random. Consistent rhythms and recurring melodic themes are almost foreign concepts to Lil B, resulting in music that would give any trained musician a headache (imagine transcribing this). He probably laid down one virtual instrument at a time, improvising—if you can call it that, since it sounds more like gleeful button-pressing than carefully considered improvisation—in a vacuum until it all builds up into something like “A Song for Mom,” an eight-minute epic where nearly every note sounds blatantly wrong. About five minutes in, there’s a buildup that sounds like the result of feeding Coltrane’s Ascension to an AI, followed by possibly the most bizarre “horn” solo you’ve ever heard. The pieces on Afrikantis aren’t songs or compositions, they’re meandering blobs of cacophonous sound delivered in three- to eight-minute segments sure to test your patience.
The record goes on like this for a while: Lil B messing around with his band of virtual musicians, and you trying to even slightly comprehend any of it. There are nods to Afrobeat, though nothing that sounds like Afrobeat for more than 10 seconds at a time (the mechanical drums on “Kim” would never have been composed by anyone touching real percussion). “Eurasia,” with its low-bitrate tin can drums, wacky synths lines, and chorus of distorted fake horns, is beyond any categorization and might be the weirdest track here (that’s saying something). “Guinea Pig Arcade” is a mangled computerized take on 70s jazz fusion, while all the tracks after it find the Based God mostly giving up on the jazz thing (save for some fake upright bass) and going full-on Ferraro-esque utopian virtual. Ending Afrikantis on a serviceable but confusing note are “Jack London Square Oakland Ca,” “West Berkeley Ca Waterfront,” “Welcome to Oakland California,” and “Park St Alameda Californina” [sic], all pleasant soundscape pieces that drone on for way too long. But don’t those traits sum up the entire record?
Hating Afrikantis would be misguided, even though by no traditional metric can this be considered “good,” or even “listenable.” Yet for all its immediately obvious faults, this is a record that needs to exist. Jazz is one of the few forms where technical proficiency remains a barrier to entry; Lil B and his computer plow right through that. Even in avant-garde jazz, musicians usually follow basic musical rules. Lil B The Based God breaks those rules, perhaps because he doesn’t even know they exist. My excitement over Afrikantis reminds me of something Lester Bangs wrote about Lou Reed’s infamous meth-driven noise record Metal Machine Music: “I realize that any idiot with the equipment could have made this album, including me, you or Lou. That’s one of the main reasons I like it so much. As with the Godz and Tangerine Dream, not only does it bring you closer to the artist, but someday, god willing, I may get to do my own Metal Machine Music. It’s all folk music, anyway.” Jazz has never had this sort of moment, until now. While Lil B is an outsider in the jazz world (where he’s probably unheard of, much less taken seriously) and Afrikantis may or may not be influential, it’s a record that openly questions who is “allowed” to make jazz and how. Maybe he’s trolling us all, but I strongly believe it’s worth taking seriously. At long last, we have a Trout Mask Replica for the digital age where no one can afford to hire actual musicians. And for that, I’m grateful. Thank you Based God.
(The sound quality of the 44.1kHz/16bit digital stream—the only available format—is mediocre, because these sorts of virtual instruments never sound convincing. That’s by design, though everything’s spread out nicely. But is anyone listening to a Lil B record for the sound?)
2022-12-26 07:01:27 PM
“Hating Afrikantis would be misguided, even though by no traditional metric can this be considered “good,” or even “listenable.”
“Yet for all its immediately obvious faults, this is a record that needs to exist.”
“Jazz is one of the few forms where technical proficiency remains a barrier to entry.”
I started reading this article, not having noticed the writer, but by the end of the first paragraph it was clear this was a Malachi turd. That last quote is so laughable as to make you think the author is setting us up. Sadly, he is not.
Jazz was built on the shoulders of people who would become giants, many having grown up in extreme impoverishment and during the darkest period of America’s racist history. These individuals nonetheless managed to master complex instruments and develop a whole new genre of music. But wait! Hold my craft beer cry the Millennials, turns out this is another example in a long list of systemic discrimination and anti-inclusionary practices. Why should younger generations be subjected to learning a (my god) instrument to gain entry to this music genre? This is the equivalent of claiming that the sport of, oh I don’t know - swimming, should not require one to actually know how to swim, because that too is discriminatory. Why can’t it be performed on dry land? I don’t know if it’s excruciating naivety, stupidity or what, but this is Millennials new mantra, and Malachi is triggered.
2022-12-26 07:09:50 PM
Malachi Lui wrote:
...and i'm not triggered, nor am i a millennial!
2022-12-29 12:54:57 AM
I may be wrong but I don't think the OP's point is uniquely a slight against you, Malachi, but rather a lament of dismay at The General State Of Things. And I have to admit, as a millenial myself, that most of his diatribe is painfully true. It echoes something Jack White recently said. To paraphrase (because I don't remember the exact quote): "Young people making music today have never had to work for anything. I feel sorry for them because they don't know it means to put effort into learning."
For me, the manifestiation of this sentiment is palpably audible in much of the music (I use the term loosely) that has been released in the last 15 years (prior to which the software wasn't quite advanced enough, nor music culture quite so lost in the social media hellscape, as to allow for production without at least a measure of skill).
In short, this album is just another straw on the back of the music culture camel, and many (not all, but a clear majority) of the people putting out music today are charlatans. It gives me no pleasure saying this; it's just the conclusion I have reached based on a lot of listening.
Fortunately, recorded music keeps alive the past and there is more than a lifetime's worth of listening to be found in the music of truly dedicated musicians from all eras who are not cash-/fame-motivated posers.
(The "Rise of the Idiots" episode of Nathan Barley was prescient.)
2022-12-29 12:57:01 AM
Side note: I see there's no edit button here, but obviously the Jack White quote should have been "...don't know what it means..."
2022-12-28 07:04:51 PM
Jeffrey Puckett wrote:
Get over yourself, old man.
2022-12-27 12:34:40 AM
Silk Dome Mid wrote:
Thanks for the warning, I guess.
2023-02-11 02:48:56 PM
I couldn't disagree with the reviewer more. I'm also not sure what all the generational contempt is about in the comments. I listened to and played (poorly) jazz for nearly 30 years and am now also heavily immersed in "classical" music of all types. Not that I wasn't in the past, but it has finally become my primary well to explore. I had never heard of Lil B until this review, don't like rap/hiphop (sorry), and so came to this recording completely without hopes or expectations. I will say, it is most certainly not jazz, whatever that may be to some. It is, however, an interesting musical journey--a collage of sound that I feel, contrary to the reviewer, coheres very well. It does not eschew the "rules" of music to my ear. It grooves plenty, has harmonies that are not overly strident, though they do not resolve, and is full of ever changing colors and textures that make for an engaging journey for the ear. So, while I do not agree with the reviewer's assessment, I am happy he reviewed it because I discovered something new.