Late into Tree House is Le1f’s most sensual and sensory song, one aptly named “Oils.” If the title doesn’t emit a sense of sex, then the Potionz-produced beat, which drips with bedroom bass and porn soundtrack elements, should. The lyrics are equally toothsome, but it’s also where Le1f supplies one of his most character-telling pair of bars: “I wanna take it there/ you stink, but I don’t care/ ‘cuz boy, I love your pheromones/ can you come and make this pharaoh moan?” He paints himself as a primal, irreverent braggart, something oft-displayed in his ballet- and modern dance-trained (and, frankly, club) stage moves. But what he also reveals on the song, unintentionally I assume, is his parallel to the electronic artist Matthew Dear. On Dear’s lovelorn and feverish album Black City is a track called “You Put A Smell On Me,” one that I’ve always found to be an absolute fright. Its thrusting synths cause a sense of menace in the midst of a pick-up track. And on “Oils,” Le1f references the title, reminding that attraction at its basest is a tactile response to the olfactory and pretty much nothing more. It also serves as a reminder that that’s kind of why you’re pulled into both of their catalogues — their sonorous vocals and precocious compositions tend to arouse listeners because they are usually at least six months ahead of their time. But even if Le1f is Rap Game Matthew Dear, he is still way better at slinging carnal knowledge, perhaps more so than just about anyone in the game.
And much more explicit than “Oils” is Tree House‘s preceding cut, “Free Kiki.” If you’re familiar with ballroom culture or even the Scissor Sisters’ “Let’s Have A Kiki,” then you’d be smart to surmise that this is about a gossip-filled party. Instead, it’s a wink to those in the know, but builds on nostalgia-fantasies of trysts past, morphing the reference into one about getting freaky (his “If U Seek Amy,” if you will). What makes it one of the tape’s standouts is not that he’s further proving that he can rap so salaciously without forgoing lyricism (seriously, just the second verse of his breakout single “Wut” was a tongue-twister mission statement for that), but that his production choices are just beyond. Here, the U.S.-born, Tokyo-raised Cybergiga dishes out a kaleidoscopic collage of synth bells, putting Le1f in perfect company with futuR&B upstart Kelela’s recently-released “Enemy” and others who have pushed rap and R&B into outstanding digital sonic territories. Can these guys just open for the Kendrick Lamar-less dates of the Yeezus Tour, or what? (And there’s your Yeezus reference, you guys!)
Le1f is not undeserving of that suggestion, either. When we talk about him, the focus tends to be on his music’s aural qualities, not his hyper-attention to detail. On “Cane Sugar,” he pads the track with references to different sweeteners, but doesn’t just land on the obvious brown sugar, nodding to the mangosteen as well, an exotic fruit that can be used for non-artificial, zero calorie sweeteners. There isn’t really anything about this guy that smacks of right now, he’s always about twelve twerks ahead of everyone else. It’s why his use of Trap-a-holics’ “Damn son, where’d you find this?” drop on a hook works: He employs a labyrinthine flow on “Blood Oranges,” one that forces you to beat-match his delivery to the ghostly beat, a task that is harrowing but has an enormous pay-off when you get what he’s doing; “Star Me” is a posse cut of breathy raps and apparition-like crooning; and the aforementioned “Damn Son” is a tour de force on its own, one I’ve raved about twice on this site, and when it comes in after sumptuous, contemplative triangle of opening cuts, it breathes his unique energy into the tape. Purists be damned, it’s one of the best rap tracks of the year. (But, frankly, so is “Spa Day” from his January tape Fly Zone.)
Earlier this week, Tom talked about how Drake changed the rap landscape, forcing its mainstream audience to re-imagine what works and allowing his mark to dictate further consumption, including the acceptance of someone like A$AP Rocky. And while Rocky and Le1f may pretty much look the same, Hood By Air muses as they are, Le1f’s panache for juggling newness sort of precludes him from this sweeping New Guy brigade. Still, a change is brewing. Just last month, Zebra Katz did a guest verse on a track for Icona Pop, further propping up the ever-expanding rap tent with another pole. So it’s not just Drake, there are a lot of forces at work to change what has been gospel. Le1f will just be in that fantastic future a few bars before the rest of us.
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