"I'm being really ratchet right now," the up-and-coming rapper Le1f tells me over the phone. He's on a train, and I've asked him what his wildest music video fantasy would look like. He laughs, but he doesn't demur. "I don't think I'm being like Marina Abramovic, but that's totally where I want to take it: pulling strands of pearls through wounds in my body while rapping. That sounds really crackin' to be honest."
If you don't know Le1f, aka Khalif Diouf, you will. He's been making waves in the New York rap scene among queer and straight listeners alike. And for all his subversive ideas, he's got the potential for broad appeal. (Referring to him as a "gay rapper," while accurate, is a misdirection, he points out; "female rap" isn't a genre either.)
Hey, Le1f's new EP dropping tomorrow, includes the single "Boom." ("How many batty boys can you fit in a jeep?") It's his first project since signing with Terrible Records, a move that establishes his position in the indie scene with labelmates like Grizzly Bear and Dev Hynes. The deal is part of a joint venture with XL recordings, which carries blockbuster names such as Thom Yorke and Vampire Weekend. "I don't necessarily need it to be a fucking Lady Gaga, Janet Jackson production," he says. "But I definitely have ideas that require screens and projection and hired dancers."
At Wesleyan University, where he majored in dance, Le1f, 24, wrote beats for Das Racist, including the track "Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell," which made them internet famous. But Le1f was destined to make his own mark on the widening hip-hop landscape. He has released three mixtapes, most recently Tree House, whose track "Damn Son" Pitchfork called an "unqualified banger."
When I ask Le1f for a tour of his musical influences, he narrates his version of Genesis in a matter-of-fact tone. "Music history starts in 1994 with Aaliyah. And then you put on Missy Elliott and Timbaland and that's the second day, and on the third day there was Lil' Kim and Junior Mafia. After that it's like Bjork and weird shit."
Perhaps the most unique thing about Le1f's music is it's deep sensuality in a genre that tends toward phallus comparisons, the objectification of women, and the trivialization of sex. He is at times theatrical or ironic, but the defining characteristic of his music is potency. His lush, clubby beats and agile lyrical delivery thrust him toward a trajectory of pop-rap radio play.
That's not to say his lyrics lack depth or timely social commentary. "It's my place to talk about issues within the gay community as well as gay rights," he says. "Taxi," one of the songs on his forthcoming full-length album, is about "racist gay dudes in the club" who ignore him precisely the way taxi cab drivers ignore him on the street.
"The Gaystream doesn't care about diversity," Le1f says. "I'm not going to shy away from what it feels like to be unaccepted as a gay person."