Queer rap is this era's Riot Grrrl—a "genre" as much as a cultural movement of previously muted voices—and while Hole translated Riot Grrrl into noise within the grasp of Entertainment Weekly's attention, queer rap still awaits its pop culture avatar. Le1f has long seemed poised to cross-over into the mainstream, and he could still become that pop burglar—but not with his debut album Riot Boi. Although lead single "Koi" may sound like a strategic aim at a buzzworthy radio single comparable to the FM accessibility of Le1f's breakthrough track "Wut," Riot Boi is most immediately an album about not being seen. "I'm a wonder like Stevie, like Stevie you don't see me," he raps on standout "Swirl." If Le1f's career has thus far been about breaking glass ceilings as a queer black rapper, then Riot Boi shows us a trailblazer sitting down among these cracked shards of glass, reckoning with what it means to have come first.
Riot Boi's early cuts capitalize on production polish that moves beyond the underground grittiness of Le1f's first mixtape Dark York and the simpler sound of his Hey EP. Opener "Hi" succeeds from pure hype, the constant background greetings of a robofemme "Hi!" reminding us that this is a long-anticipated debut—while concluding lines "I'm feelin' like such a new being" promise a newly matured artist. On "Rage", Le1f offers the promise "It's lit/ Now, let's rage", but what follows is less "rage" than swagger-laced annoyance, as on "Grace, Alek or Naomi," where Le1f spits "I'm the faggot, yet still they don't understand it/ I roll with my posse and I been here for business." This sass saturates "Swirl," which enlists Junglepussy and House of LaDosha to assert the black partner as the erotic powerbroker in interracial trysts—reversing the white gaze. On the track, Le1f reclaims black exoticism with lines like "I'm a dark-skinned nigga on TV." Riot Boi thus begins with Le1f navigating his own breakthrough, his point of view oddly retrospective for a debut album—evidencing the new hype economy of the internet, where a star can be made before ever being born.
Le1f's self-reckoning also involves returning to familiar sounds that unfortunately feel like regression rather than mastery. Album midpoint "Koi," alongside "Umami / Water," only recall how much better this kind of aqua shtick worked for Azealia Banks' Fantasea or even for Le1f's own 2012 tracks "Bubbles" and "My Ooozy." "Water" is built on a melodic riff of what sounds like an electric guitar wet-dreaming of a sitar, Le1f's East-Fucks-West aesthetic at its best. It's the album's most compelling sound, but nevertheless its water witch-hop aesthetic (shared with "Koi") diverts the innovative ideas from Riot Boi's early highlights.
Riot Boi delivers what its title promises--a transgression of pop cultural limitations—most clearly in the final three tracks, socially-conscious slow jams with far more overt political messages than Le1f's usual banger-obscured radicalism. This makes for the cringe-worthy "Tell," an admonition to down-low closet cases to come out, but Le1f's political lucidity also allows for the stunning "Taxi." The song speaks about sexual economies of racialized desire but doubles as a commentary on the way mainstream audiences "pass" Le1f "like taxis do." But, he sings, "I don't care, whatever's cool/ Roll the window up on 'em"—making it clear that, whatever crossover potential the album falls short of, Le1f is more than content to remain a riot boi.
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