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Le1f - Dark York

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Artist: Le1f

Album: Dark York

Label: self-released

Review date: Jun. 29, 2012

“I remember my dad said you have three strikes against you in this world,” relays a voiceover opening the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning. “Every black man has two. That they’re black and a male. But you’re black and a male and you’re gay. You’re gonna have a hard fuckin’ time.” Now imagine New York’s Le1f with an additional handicap: He’s black and a male and gay and a rapper in a strongly homophobic, hetero-dominant genre.

But just as the rest of the quotation leads into being stronger than you could imagine, so, too, has Le1f arrived more self-confident and assured than any other rapper this year. Dark York was released for free in mid-April and it’s not just one of the best mixtapes of the year, or even one of the best hip-hop albums of the year — this is some of the best music of the year, period.

Like the Big Apple ballroom culture that led to its late-’80s mainstream explosion, queer hip-hop has had time to gestate, occasionally popping up in isolated scene reports without actually establishing a star to stick. It’s hardly been an explosion, but Lil B, Nicki Minaj and the gradual crumbling of the old rap order has primed artists like Zebra Katz and Mykki Blanco to make their way forward. “Ima Read” remains one of the year’s best tracks and Blanco is by all accounts a great live show, but Dark York is the full-length you’re sure to remember.

That’s not mere pigeonholing, either. Set in the broader scope of the genre, Le1f is utilizing some dense and busily futuristic beats from highly touted L.A. duo Nguzunguzu, longtime out-there purveyor Matt Shadetek, and occasional comrade Boody, not to mention all the music that is his own — it takes a minute to remember that this is the same guy who did the beat for Das Racist’s “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” in other words. Le1f is playful, but he’s not stopping in for a cheesy gordita anywhere on here; Dark York is what it says, a sassy trip through dark clubs, darker back alleys and after-hours catcalls.

It’s not an easy listen taken all at once. Like a lot of mixtapes that leave room for improvement, there are 21 songs clocking in well north of an hour; for something as tough to digest as this can be, that’s a challenge. It also doesn’t help that the mix isn’t consistent and Le1f’s vocals sometimes get muddled or obscured by obnoxiously mistimed double-track vocals or excessive echo.

And yet, that is part of the allure. “My Oozy” is one of the best tracks on the mixtape because it neatly summarizes what you’re getting on a whole: Submerged under C¥bergiga’s bubbly melody at the beginning and end, Le1f comes forth to deliver the sneering, monotone attitude at which he excels through a few verses near the end (“You know uptown girls be doin’ that / Got your man stoned starin’ at me like a lava lamp / like he thought that blue was clue / like he found a Scooby snack / that’s my Silly Putty / but this one gives a gooey snack”). It’s not just that he’s a technically adept rapper with unnoticeably good breath control; it’s that he’s self-aware. He knows he’s good. It’s a convincing combination.

The highlights are there for the taking — the machismo of a DJ Drama watermark subverted on “Gayngsta,” the Nicki cop on “Bubbles,” the requisite Aaliyah sample on “Fresh,” the moody instrumental closer “Uptown” — and will continue to be long after this year is over. This is one of the ideal portraits of where we are, and how weird hip hop has gotten in 2012. The fuss over identity politics in hip hop is still just beginning, but Le1f isn’t concerned with that. Black, male, gay, rapper: He’s an arrow through all of these things. And “if you shoot an arrow and it goes real high,” says Dorian Corey curtly at the end of Paris is Burning, “hooray for you.” Yes, Dark York certainly is something worth celebrating.

By Patrick Masterson

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