The New York rapper Le1f delivers all of his lines in a quasi-mumbly back-of-the-throat snarlpurr, to the point where it can be tough to tell what he’s saying. But on first listen to his new tape Fly Zone, this one bit, from “Airbending,” immediately jumps out: “I am whatever you say I am / Stop worrying about how gay I am / Or how gay I’m not / Does my shit not knock? Are my people getting tipsy till they piss the pot?” Le1f, then, is a gay rapper, who, like every other gay rapper, does not want to be pigeonholed as just a gay rapper. I completely get that. But, to an outside observer, it’s pretty incredible the way Le1f and a select few other New Yorkers (Mykki Blanco, Cakes Da Killa) are rewriting the rules, putting vogue-ball culture out in front of their music in ways that both invite and confront. This stuff is pretty far out on rap’s periphery; it’s not like these guys are crashing the BET Awards right now. But Le1f, in particular, is making music that’s getting more and more undeniable, and it’s getting easier to imagine a future when we’ll see him perched on a 106 & Park couch or sneering his way through a DJ Khaled posse cut (or, you know, something less lame). Because I can’t speak to his people pot-pissing tipsiness, but Le1f’s shit does knock, particularly now.
Le1f’s 2012 single “Wut” was a glorious honk-blare anthem, something that transitioned perfectly out of TNGHT’s window-smasher “Higher Ground” better than maybe any other rap song last year. But the mixtape it came from, Dark York, never quite drew me in. It was too long, too diffuse, Le1f’s voice too buried in the mix. And I guess I should probably acknowledge that I have zero vogue-ball experience, that I’ve spent a ton of my life listening to snarlingly heteronormative rap music, and that an aesthetic like his probably required a level of ear-adjustment that I just wasn’t ready to give it. I have none of those issues with Fly Zone; Le1f has effectively met me halfway. His rap voice is sharper and more defined, further out to the front of the mix. And the beats are more straightforward — catchy, even.
I still hate the term “trap rave,” the way it turns a shitty house where people sell crack to desperate people into a stylistic affectation, but it seems to be here to stay, and so much of the stuff under that label just bangs so hard. And Fly Zone may be the first rap mixtape I’ve heard that integrates that sound completely. There are a ton of different producers here, but they all internalize that bang, filtering Shawty Redd and Lex Luger’s triumphal synth-horns through TNGHT and Baauer’s frenetic drum-machine pile-ups and cycle it back around to rap music. The music here is pretty definitively club music — music about being fucked up and lost and dazed by the lights and just going with it, letting your body chemistry adjust to the moment. And it sounds like that feeling, too, the savage synth-smashes of “Spa Day” and the jittery bass depth-charges of “Cloud So Loud” grabbing your brain and throwing it against the wall. Even when the music slows down, it’s exhilarating.
And Le1f’s voice and approach are just perfect for this stuff; he inhabits it. Spank Rock shows up on “Star Alliance,” and it makes sense; the way Naeem Juwan was stuttering a slip-sliding his way through Baltimore club and baile funk eight years ago, Le1f is doing right now with everything this-minute in dance music. And because that club music has slowed down a bit, it’s given him a bit of room to let his voice lasciviously croak its way across measures, to drop groany sex jokes (“I’m from Mercury, but I move into Uranus”) or snappy threats (“I might just read you backwards like the Holy Qur’an”) without rushing them to fit a frantic BPM-count. He’s having fun with this stuff, confidently projecting slithery charisma over tracks that most other rappers would probably find too unforgiving. The tape is still only a couple of days old, and I’m still processing, but it already feels like a landmark moment for a very particular club-rap hybrid that feels very exciting.
Download Fly Zone for free here.