Le1f’s Dark York mixtape is one of the most provocative rap releases so far this year, a major work that constantly and subversively carves a distinct space for itself without stepping outside of the feel of popular hip-hop. Over a staggering arsenal of original beats, half produced by Le1f and half culled from club-centric artists like Nguzunguzu, Dark York injects the space of swag, etc. with the young-and-everywhere New York rapper/producer's gayness, a perspective rarely presented so directly in the popular music he's clearly inspired by. Lyrical quotation and paraphrase play a big role, with Le1f frequently gesturing toward familiar lines, like Nicki Minaj’s biblical Do you like my bodyyy sing-song from "Bottoms Up," before rejecting caricature: Not pretend/ No Barbie, no Ken. Production-wise, one solid, if on-the-nose, example of that subversion is "Gayngsta," which features Philadelphia artist and fellow Wesleyan alum Don Jones over a Le1f-produced beat sampling shout-outs from DJ Drama's long-running mixtape series. Le1f doesn't edit Drama's words or stretch syllables for effect; you just imagine the letter Y when Drama yells "Gangsta!" and that's what it becomes.
In Carrie Battan's recent Pitchfork story on queer rap in New York, Le1f tells her, "Let's not make gay NYC rap a 'thing.' I'm not trying to be competing with my friends based on their race and sexuality." Gender figures prominently in Dark York, but when you hear songs like "Wut" and its insistent, horn-driven beat, simply comparing Le1f to like-minded artists like House of Ladosha or Zebra Katz only sidesteps the truth of the track: if Nicki or Busta Rhymes hopped on this beat it would be an instant smash. Le1f's clearly gifted. Here's hoping he finds the same success. Download now courtesy of the label Greedhead.