Le1f keeps getting better and better. The New York-based musician — real name Khalif Diouf — first gained attention while studying at Wesleyan University by producing for rising hip-hop crew (and fellow Wesleyan students) Das Racist. By the end of his undergrad, Diouf was hard at work on his debut solo mixtape, Dark York, the first full-length articulation of his burgeoning aesthetic, an intoxicating blend of forward-thinking beats and his own chameleonic voice. Earlier this year, Diouf followed Dark York with the exceptional Fly Zone, a tape that succeeded by refining and expanding upon the potential of its predecessor. Now, Le1f has released a third mixtape, Tree House, that once again continues to build on his prior successes while striking out in surprising new directions.
By this point, it’s become clear that Le1f has an uncanny knack for both composing and commissioning incredibly solid beats. Dark York’s “Wut,” probably the most popular Le1f song so far, is built on an immediately infectious, synthesized brass loop — so infectious, in fact, that Diouf has leveled completely justifiable accusations against a certain fur coat-wearing rapper for appropriating musical elements of “Wut” for a certain 7x platinum single. On Tree House, however, Diouf defers the beatmaking responsibilities to a variety of forward-thinking producers who, by and large, come through with some striking sonic ideas.
Chicago duo The-Drum, fresh off the release of their excellent debut Contact, produce two of the strongest tracks on the mixtape, “Plush” and “Swerve,” both of which develop spacious, relaxed grooves; the former explores a darker vibe by using a creepily operatic female vocal part, while the latter employs a synthesized steel drum to a surprisingly cogent tropical effect. Meanwhile, FaltyDL provides the beat for Tree House’s centerpiece, “Jack,” a song that uses a relatively small number of musical components — two primary keyboard chords, a driving drum line, and some occasional vocal samples — to an incredibly dynamic, propulsive effect. But one of the most impressive aspects of this tape is that, despite the large number of unique musical voices involved in the project — I count 10 different producers over the 14 tracks — the work as a whole ends up being quite cohesive; most songs here explore the same sort of murky, chaotic intersection of hip-hop and electronic music that Le1f’s voice sounds so wonderful floating within.
And what a wonderful voice it is. One of the most notable aspects of Tree House is certainly Diouf’s increased mastery of the timbral and stylistic possibilities inherent within his vocal cords. At times, his flow is more luxurious than ever before — simply examine the gloriously drawn-out way that he enunciates “plush,” “lush,” “much,” and “touch” on the opening song. Even more interestingly, however, Diouf chooses to sometimes sing in a meandering, nearly Futurian sort of heavily Auto-Tuned croon; on the stunning “Hush Bb,” he alternates between this style of singing and some rather creepy pitch-shifted rapping, creating an utterly indelible impression (Boody’s brooding, nebulous production only adds to the effect). However, at other moments — such as on the tape’s eminently catchy lead single, “Damn Son” — Le1f employs a faster, rapidfire style of delivery, his words tumbling over one another in a nearly arrhythmic mess of witticisms and thought.
With Tree House, then, Diouf yet again continues to cultivate his unique artistic identity in ways that simultaneously build on what came before and reveal potential for the future. I follow Le1f’s (utterly top-notch) Twitter account, and lately he’s been dropping some tantalizing hints about upcoming endeavors — a yet-to-be-announced record deal, collaborations with new producers, even new original production by Diouf himself, all in preparation for his official debut album next year. With the release of two of the strongest hip-hop mixtapes of the year, 2013 has certainly been huge for Le1f, but my money’s on 2014 being even bigger. Until then, however, we’ll have to make due with Tree House, an undeniably impressive statement by an increasingly vital voice in the independent hip-hop world.