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Le1f - Fly Zone

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Artist: Le1f

Album: Fly Zone

Label: self-released

Review date: Mar. 12, 2013

Fly Zone lacks the "Wut" and the WTF that made Le1f’s debut mixtape such a slap on the cheek. The goofy brass and reeds on that breakout single wasn’t the only daisy-age arrangement on Dark York, nor was it the only song that was blunt about the rapper’s sexuality. "Lavandin" was a tour of his shelf full of essential oils, potions from the co-op that keep the boys coming back, with psychedelic chimes swirling behind him. The tape didn’t seem to get an objective preview from anyone who could have gotten the levels straightened out, and the whole thing descended into a cock-eyed murk that ended up making perfect sense for a rapper who was reorienting the macho gloss of everyday hip hop.

This followup doesn’t try to repeat those accidents-on-purpose. Here, in the standout line on the standout track, “Airbending,” he announces “I am whatever you say I am. / Stop worrying about how gay I am," and that’s pretty much the only time he brings up the topic overtly. It’s delivered as the beat shifts after a torrent of rapid-fire rhymes, downshifting from a techno 4/4, just briefly, to something more old-school. The track starts with a prelude of echoing, irregular growls, and there are lots of ominous tones like that. Fly Zone has a far more cohesive sound than Dark York, which is surprising given that every track features a different producer.

Given Le1f’s gift for waggish rhymes, it’s not even apparent what that cohesive style is at first. But if you dropped out his vocals from "Breezy" and "Psy Lock,” and dropped in a Britsoul gal like Cooly G, the result would be a pair of pleading U.K. club ballads. This becomes more obvious by the end of the tape, where "Autopilot" finds him trading off with the singer SAFE, who’s got such a similar tone to his voice, you’d swear Le1f is slipping into balladry himself. The pensive synths make for a downbeat jam. Even when things are moving quicker, like on "Spa Day,” there’s an early dubstep creep-crawling to the groove. The backing is menacing enough that its ode to bathhouse pleasure isn’t immediately apparent. Even with the "ooh la la, mazal tov" refrain, it’s more heavy leering than a wink.

The only time he doesn’t bury the camp comes when Kitty Pryde shows up on "Pocahontas,” where they create the aural equivalent of a desecrated Disney princess GIF, as befits Kitty’s Tumblr roots. Fly Zone is more an exercise in demonstrating his differences rather than talking about them. "Tha Whip" brings in Hallek Maul to give a street-view rap that shows just how much Le1f doesn’t even try to play that game. He subverts the street talk fully on "Coins”; the gangsta boasts aren’t about settling scores so much as his Nintendo scores. With the production cleaned up, it’s suddenly apparent how much he uses vocal fry. If that buzzing affect makes Tridelt sisters’ voices unbearable, it’s a completely different beast in his baritone, a display of slack confidence. On "Coins" he goes nuts with the frizzled larynx for a verse, a dose of temporary insanity that contrasts with the complete control elsewhere on Fly Zone.

And that’s what this record is about: control. Le1f got folks attention last year, and doesn’t care about keeping it. But it’s worth your time to follow him through these grayer back alleys. Once you get your bearings, you’ll wonder where he’s going next.

By Ben Donnelly

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