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Back in 2019, the fourth episode of the second season of the Black-ish spinoff Grown-ish featured the debut of Leikeli47’s video for “Tic Boom.” The lead-up to the video throughout the episode found the show’s cast preparing a watch party for a mystery artist’s video premiere, with the cast debating what makes a musical genius. The episode was an obvious reference to then-recent album premieres from the likes of Frank Ocean and Kanye West, who both got name-checked, along with Chief Keef, Drake, and Young Thug.
Then, one character makes an observation that seems obvious in hindsight but highlights an ongoing problem in pop culture – especially when it comes to hip-hop. Why are all the so-called “geniuses” men? Even now, in an era with more female rappers charting than ever before – from Cardi B and Doja Cat to Latto and Saweetie – somehow, female artists still seem to receive less attention and respect than their male counterparts. I was reminded of this over the past weekend, as my social feeds buzzed over Kendrick Lamar’s new album.
Less pronounced was the buzz for Leikeli47’s new album, Shape Up. The culmination of a beauty shop-themed trilogy including 2017’s Wash & Set and 2018’s Acrylic, on the surface, Shape Up also bears all the hallmarks of a work of rap genius. As part of a trilogy, the 14-track project comes with rich mythology of its own built by the masked rapper’s prior works. Leikeli has always defied convention, eschewing both contemporary and traditional hip-hop sounds to craft her own unique, dancefloor-ready take on the genre. She’s as informed by the drag ballroom scene as she is the trap house, with beats featuring influences from house, techno, and dancehall.
She’s also a superb rapper with one hell of a hook; taking a page from the book of the late, great MF DOOM, she has yet to make a public appearance without one of her signature face masks. She makes them herself out of bandanas and balaclavas, occasionally bedazzling or otherwise embellishing them. We don’t even know her real name; she’s like a modern-day hip-hop superhero, using her anonymity to put the focus squarely on the boundary-pushing, eclectic style she’s pioneering.
It’s hard to hear booming, confident jams like “Chitty Bang” and “LL Cool J” without wondering how they aren’t as ubiquitous as those of her female peers – let alone the breezy No. 1s accumulated by men like Drake, Future, and Jack Harlow. They’re every bit as catchy and transportive, every bit as relevant to the times, every bit as quotable and cocksure, with lines like “It’s all checks and balances, baby, the world is mine,” feeling just as much like potential Instagram captions as any of the catchphrases the above-mentioned names have offered recently.
And Leikeli can sing, too. I mean, legitimately sing, not that weird, atonal humming thing a lot of rappers have been doing in recent years. On “Done Right” and “Hold My Hand,” she switches to full-on R&B, offering tender reflections on romance and relationships minus the toxicity that’s marked the genre lately. Meanwhile, “BITM” and “Jay Walk” practically beg the listener to catwalk, strut, and vogue like it was the ball culture heyday of the late 1980s. And lest anyone doubt her rap skills, her storytelling takes the fore on “Free To Love,” while her wordplay shines on “Instant Classic.”
If this album — this consistency and cohesion in eclecticism, this total commitment to the presentation, is not the work of a genius, then the list of who all deserves such a title needs to get several dozen names shorter. If anything, the muted buzz of excitement leading up to this project’s release just proves that in hip-hop, eclecticism can be a disadvantage as much as a strength. Pushing the genre’s boundaries can earn an artist a lot of love from critics and fans, but it can just as easily take them too far beyond the margins for rap centrists who want the genre to remain the same as much as they want it to grow.
It also proves that hip-hop still has a long way to go in terms of truly including women in the conversation. Just recently, both Lil Wayne and Ja Rule admonished their peers and successors to acknowledge the contributions of women in hip-hop, with Wayne singling out Missy Elliott for her own innovative catalog. Incidentally, one of the names Leikeli47 is most often compared to is Missy (both are from Virginia, which may explain their sympathetic resonance with one another). Sometimes, it feels very much like we’ve failed the latter, who only recently began to receive flowers in the form of lifetime achievement awards and belated shout-outs from the rappers she’s inspired. The same can’t happen for Leikeli47. They say genius is never appreciated in its time, but today, we certainly have the opportunity to acknowledge her as the genius she’s already proven herself to be.
Shape Up is out now on RCA Records. Get it here.