Le1f, ‘Riot Boi’ [ALBUM REVIEW]
Hip-hop has long been criticized for the aura of homophobia that surrounds it. Since the 1980s, gay slurs have often been used by rappers to insult others, and it hasn't changed much since then. Artists like Eminem and Tyler, the Creator have used gay slurs on the regular and it has caused a great deal of controversy. Homophobic lyrics seem much more likely to appear in a hip-hop song than a song of any other genre. With that sort of stigma, it's not hard to see why there haven't been any openly gay rappers to really break out into the mainstream of the genre.
Le1f is a rapper who could have the potential to change that. The New York rapper gained attention in 2012 for his undeniable single "Wut." The song had a catchy, bouncy horn-based beat, a crazy-fun music video and featured Le1f's quick, smooth flow and deep voice. He released a few great mixtapes in 2012 and 2013 with Dark York, Fly Zone and Tree House, and made his debut on XL Recordings with 2014's Hey EP. Le1f is seen as one of the most notable figures in the "queer hip-hop" scene, along with Cakes da Killa, Zebra Katz and Mykki Blanco. Riot Boi is his long-awaited full-length studio debut.
Watch Le1f's "Koi" Video
The label "queer hip-hop" itself has been controversial, since it could be seen to imply that it's different from other hip-hop music. Many members of the "queer hip-hop" scene have few similarities outside of the facts that they are gay and make hip-hop music. The term can pigeonhole artists whose subject matter is vast beyond who they love or sleep with.
Le1f's sexuality is an important aspect of who he is and how he presents himself in his music, but it is one aspect of a more complex figure. Riot Boi doesn't just focus on issues of sexuality, but of racism, violence and more. The album is a full-on barrage of the varied styles and subject matter that Le1f can cover, inspired by other marginalized musicians (especially "riot grrrl" punks).
"Hi" serves as an introduction to Le1f ("I'm that wind, water, air, earth type / I'm a nomadic c--- and the chief of my sons"), but the album's lead single "Koi" might be the best look at his style since "Wut" debuted. With a futuristic beat courtesy of dance producer SOPHIE, he spurns the advances of a man who wants to get with him. Le1f is just there for fun, and rips into the loser who thinks he has a chance. His rapid-fire flow is on full display, the lyrics are funny and his voice is infectious. Like "Wut," the track also has an insane, immediately memorable music video because Le1f is one of the most consistent artists in all of hip-hop right now when it comes to releasing solid visuals.
Watch Le1f's "Umami / Water" Video
No two tracks on Riot Boi sound the same. "Rage" is another highlight of the album and it's all about lashing out at haters. "Umami / Water" is a double track first serving as a dedication to Le1f's friend Juliana Huxtable and transitions into a metaphorical song dealing with water.
The album's emotional peak comes at the tail end of the album with its last three songs. "Taxi" deals with some of the struggles Le1f has faced as a gay black man and the racism he's experienced in the gay community. He says boys won't date him because of his race, just like how taxi drivers won't stop for him for the same reasons. This track is followed by "Tell," which encourages young, closeted gay people to love themselves and be themselves. Finally, "Change" closes the LP. It's directly inspired by events like Trayvon Martin's death and Ferguson and encourages real-life action in stopping police harassment and brutality.
The sound of the album is completely futuristic, and little on here resembles the sound of "traditional" hip-hop. Along with SOPHIE and Le1f himself, production is provided by experimental electronic producers like Balam Acab, Devonte Hynes (Blood Orange), Evian Christ and Lunice, among others. The production style gives it a unique, spacey feel that's unlike any rap album heard this year. There's pop and dance influences all over the place, but there are also noisy and brash segments. Le1f tiptoes the lines between genres well and adapts to just about any sound that his production team gives him.
Hip-hop still seems like it has a long way to go before it fully embraces a more diverse landscape and welcomes more gay rappers. However, steps are being taken to better this and Le1f's presence is one of the signs that the genre can shift gears to be more accepting. It's hard to see somebody like him break out even as much as he has if he started out a few years ago. Le1f is more than a "gay rapper," though. He's a great rapper, period. Hopefully what we've seen from him on Riot Boi is just the tip of the iceberg.
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