On June 30, 2011, a day after Lil B surprised his fans by dropping his I’m Gay album on iTunes, Lupe Fiasco took to his personal blog to write about why he was a fan of the Bay Area rapper. “What I was witnessing was a man in the process of profound self-realization and self-awareness,” wrote Lupe. Lil’ B responded to Lupe’s praise with his signature enthusiasm: “EPIC AND HISTORICAL TIME IN MUSIC AND THE WORLD.”
Indeed it was for Brandon McCartney, the then-21-year-old rapper/art project/social media obsessive. I’m Gay was his biggest moment in the public eye at that point in his career, as the announcement of the album’s title triggered outrage in the hip-hop community and resulted in death threats. Speaking to MTV, he said, “I’m very gay, but I love women. I’m not attracted to men in any way. I’ve never been attracted to a man in my life. But yes I am gay, I’m so happy. I’m a gay, heterosexual male.” A spokesman for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) expressed concern over the announcement: “We hope that Lil B’s album title is not just a gimmick and is really a sincere attempt to be an ally. He has the platform and the voice. We hope he uses it in a positive way.”
The album doesn’t deal with homosexuality directly, and though a blasphemous act of shock would fit the rapper’s MO (he first gained recognition as a solo artist for recording a video called “I’m God” in a church), few seemed to imagine that the album title could be both a marketing stunt and a genuine attempt at positivity. “Even if it’s 1 percent of the people that listen to me and are gonna be free, that’s better than none,” he told MTV. “That’s better than not speaking up at all … and I spoke up and I did it.”
I’m Gay was not only an act of defiant alliance, but also a solid rap album. His output can be inconsistent; in 2013 he dropped a 101-track mixtape that included a vocal feature from his pet cat KeKe. He has been derided as a joke and a mockery, and many of his songs purposefully come off that way. In the face of his newfound celebrity status during this year’s NBA Playoffs – owing not to any music of his but simply to his social media curses on stars like Kevin Durant and James Harden – it’s hard to argue Lil B’s popularity has more to do with anything other than his personality. But I’m Gay is as coherent and well rounded of a Lil’ B project as any he’s released.
Throughout the album, B mentions living in a computer, being a prisoner to the hood, and other off-center but acute observations. His verse structures often deviate from what’s normal in rap, as he’ll sometimes leave out words or simply refuse to rhyme altogether, but the project has a thematic focus that foregoes the sillier stuff and instead zooms in on uplifting, encouraging, and embracing downtrodden people – “Anybody talking down, bitch we in it together, you seem to forget, you not gonna live forever / Why you cop that ride and you spend that cheddar?” The album title even works to free the word “gay” of its negative connotation in hip-hop, though he later added I’m Happy as a qualifying subtitle to the project. At the time, rap fans weren’t as outraged at his perceived attention grab as they were at the idea that he was in fact a homosexual rapper coming out of the closet.
Lupe’s favorite line on the album comes from what is easily its most emotional song – “Unchain Me,” produced by Lil’ B’s trusty beatmaker Clams Casino. Lupe was impressed that “a 21 year old African American male who more than likely is a direct descendant of slaves, raised in a consumerist and corrupt society dominated by inequality, fear, system-trust and self-doubt” could make such a bold statement that seems to fly in the face of what hip-hop stands for. “You can’t buy that type of provocative, chilling social commentary. You have to live that. Furthermore it commands respect, and not that phony ass ‘48 Laws Of Power’ ‘saw it on Gangland’ respect either. I mean that Malcolm Martin Luther Junior respect.”
I’m Gay as a title is just one in a series of subversions Lil’ B has launched against traditional sexuality in hip-hop; just recently, he showed up on ESPN rocking his well-known grandma earrings. It was also, however, a not-so-subtle olive branch to the LGBTQ community, and the controversy surrounding the name of the project called attention to the rabid homophobia that is still so rampant in hip-hop today. Much of the rhetoric surrounding Young Thug’s eccentric slang and fashion proves we haven’t come far in four years.
Writing beautifully of gays in the U.S. last week, the Supreme Court said, “Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law.” In the wake of that historic ruling, Lil’ B’s I’m Gay feels eerily prescient, if not for hip-hop, then for America at large. “I want to get under people’s skin,” he told NPR in January of 2011. Never has he better accomplished that then with I’m Gay.