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BBC – Music – Review of Le1f

Written by on October 26, 2020

Perhaps forgivably for a young genre, hip hop has typically traded in shallow stereotypes as rock and pop embraced colourful flamboyance. Serious street life on one side; on the other, Freddie Mercury in a catsuit.

The elephant in the rap room was homosexuality – hip hop never had an openly gay, commercially successful artist. But that changed in 2012, Frank Ocean’s coming out spawning several articles on American urban music’s new attitude towards gay performers.

From the margins emerged many singularly arresting artists, Mykki Blanco amongst them. But it’s the Upper West Side’s Le1f, born Khalif Diouf, who’s most likely to breach the mainstream.

To Le1f, his homosexuality is not a major selling point – “gay rap” isn’t a genre, he told Spin in 2012. His rhymes can be sexual – but their delivery, and what’s circling the instances of innuendo, marks him apart.

The rapper/producer’s debut mixtape of 2012, Dark York, drew acclaim, but it was a muddled menagerie of production styles: a set blessed with great tracks but exhausting in a single sitting.

Fly Zone is streamlined, its production consistently excellent despite numerous contributors, none of whom work more than a single track. Its refined design is suggested before a beat is heard: it’s got 13 tracks instead of its predecessor’s 21.

The listener can interpret that title however they like. But whatever the overarching concept, assuming there is one (track titles suggest: yes), Fly Zone succeeds as a series of standalones as much as it does a coherent experience.

Psy Lock is an eerie cut with gloomy production juxtaposed with a lyrical deconstruction of Skype sex.

Airbending samples Wiley and sways close to grime’s percussive snappiness. On it, Le1f spits, “Stop worrying about how gay I am,” while also warning that he’s “not to be stepped on”. It’s striking, stupefying stuff.

Spa Day is both playful of rhymes and razor-sharp of beats – a clawed beast settling down for a pedicure. Pocahontas finds Le1f at his cheekiest: “I’m from Mercury / But I’m moving to Uranus.” Yeah, he went there.

Fly Zone is no joke, though. When Le1f says he’s the “prince that you slept on”, on Coins, he’s encapsulating in a second his awesome potential. On this and previous evidence, his skill set is impressive indeed.

This “alien from the NYC” deserves the chance to really fly.

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