by Chad Jewett
Hey, the all-too-brief Terrible/XL debut from New York rapper Le1f, is utterly addictive, state-of-the-art euphoria. Clocking in at around eighteen minutes, Hey’s five tracks unfold like a hyper-energized trip through modern hip hop’s left-field renaissance. Sounds range from the high-drama of big screen trap (“Sup”) to slinky Timbaland R&B (“Hey,” “Boom”) to corroding EDM panic attacks (“Buzz”). But the EP’s range feels more like a particularly fun obstacle course rather than a lack of sonic direction – the variously slipping, hammering, or bursting sounds invariably serve as knotty surfaces for Le1f’s elastic, melody-rich flow to bound over, slide across, or cut through. Just as the art gallery production of Hey feels like a brief, exuberant triptych of rap circa 2014, the sheer flexibility and range of Le1f’s voice plays like a short, exact dispatch of just how much computerized wonder the right emcee can bend to his or her will.
“Hey” begins the EP by bouncing between high-pitched synth bubbles and sharp jabs of strings. The song itself is a sonic marvel, but even more compelling is what Le1f chooses to do with all of that beautiful sound. Cycling back and forth between concise braggadocio daggers (“I flame throw and it’s over”) and clever challenges to critical attempts to essentialize the openly-gay rapper (“Ask a gay question, here’s a black answer / Purple panther), Le1f re-introduces himself by emphasizing all the ways in which he can turn sonic landscapes into his own private property. “Hey” also quickly reminds the listener of just how adept Le1f is at crafting hooks out of the simplest materials, whittling an earworm out of the words “Get down” as though it were an afterthought.
That inherent ability to find the energetic core of these neon beats defines middle track “Boom.” The song’s beat is a jittery splash of keyboard pings, trap snares, and echo effects in which Le1f constantly finds the spaces between spaces, quickly supercharging each syncopated bit of electronic rhythm with a spry hook. When the dots of synth speed up, so does Le1f; when the beat drops out, the rapper goes silent. Or maybe it’s vice versa, since one of the most salient marvels on display throughout the EP is the extent to which the bright sound palette of Hey feels utterly fused to Le1f’s free-range sense of rhythm and melody. “Wut” is a collection of pawn-shop synth horns and plasticized handclaps, a perfect club machine culled from spare parts and electrified by the emcee’s forward-oriented flow. At under three minutes, it’s the record’s shortest track, yet by song’s end it feels like “Wut” is dripping with sweat, the product of Le1f’s constant stream of double- and triple-timed language and the beat’s constantly recycling middle-range thump. “Buzz” begins with Skrillex-style soda-fizz hysteria, but then Le1f’s voice enters twice as loud, clarifying any questions about what defines this album, or who serves whom in its aural landscape. As with “Boom,” Le1f uses each variating sound like a different impetus for finding a new gear, speeding up when an air-raid synth bursts in mid-verse, double-timing up to fill the (relatively) empty spaces of the spare second verse, start-stopping with a stuttering tom-tom hammer.
Ultimately, it feels like the Hey’s programmed bed of sound is trying to match the rapper’s sidewinding flow, rather than the other way around. Indeed, given the way even the best rappers risk being swallowed up by the futurism of the 21st century studio, it needs to be emphasized the ways in which the entire sonic universe of Le1f’s records (please, please check out his mixtapes, Fly Zone and Tree House — both are exceptional) feels like waves of energy coursing out of the rapper’s flow, like inert atoms suddenly snapped into firing ions. It makes for an EP that feels almost staggeringly alive, a collection of avant-garde club joyousness that Le1f is able to shape around his ever-imaginative flow like bendable arcs of light. It’s both a triumph and a shame that one of the best hip-hop releases of 2014 (so far) is only five songs. It’s both exciting and torturous to know we have more of the same to look forward to.