Like listening to To Pimp a Butterfly’s message (he quotes “The Blacker the Berry” on “Grace, Alek or Naomi” to bolster the comparison) if the album included homosexuality and transsexuality in its scope, then filtered through the lens of Surf’s own message of self-love over beats that sounds inspired by Yeezus and bubblegum bass. The Four Oh Five’s Robert Whitfield notes that “in interviews Le1f’s been clear to state that he doesn’t make conscious rap” – though the album’s message is clear to the point of tangibility (I mean, just check out that album title) it’s almost always second to the music; ie. you wouldn’t know what the choruses of “Grace, Alek or Naomi” or “Umami / Water”’s “Go fish” reference without Le1f’s own notations on Genius.
This is, by my calculations, the fourth best hip-hop album of 2015, but predictably ignored by everyone because – I’m not quite sure. Late release date? Homosexual artist in a historically homophobic environment (“You still out here fucking with them fuckboys? / Fuck you, nigga, I fuck boys)? Producers like Kanye West-associate Evian Christ (who helped make “I’m In It” possible) and Lunice (who helped make “Blood on the Leaves” possible) and SOPHIE and Blood Orange not high-profile enough? Pitchfork’s Andy Emitt damned it to that under 8.0 limbo, criticizing “Koi” as “a strategic aim at a buzzworthy radio single comparable to the FM accessibility of breakthrough track ‘Wut’” and later, complaining that putting two songs with vague aquatic themes back-to-back – “Koi” and “Umami/Water” – “diverts the innovative ideas from Riot Boi’s early highlights.” Both are huh? moments: “Koi” combines two decidedly niche artists and thus, automatically cannot act as “a buzzworthy radio single” because the result is – by definition – even more niche. Meanwhile, “Koi” and “Umami/Water” as centerpieces merely culminates the innovative ideas from Riot Bio’s early highlights.
Actually, tracks 2 through 6 are just highlight after highlight; banger after banger: the sudden quiet-LOUD shift of “Rage”; “Grace, Alek or Naomi” pares long-time producer Boody with Evian Christ and the result is “futuristic dancehall” (thanks, Gary Suarez); teaming up with Junglepussy (who also put out a similarly ignored album this year) on posse track “Swirl.” (Junglepussy also tackles Le1f’s issues at large in her typical sex-fueled way, “That pink dick on my lips, lick it up like Breryer’s ice cream […] You mad ‘cause my shorty got blue eyes / When he touch me, I get butterflies”). Afterwards, Le1f doesn’t let his personality get outshone despite SOPHIE’s signature abstract production on “Koi” (even if it sounded awkward to these ears at first); it’s certainly stronger than some of the other songs SOPHIE has released this year (excepting “Just Like We Never Said Goodbye” of course). Best moment: “But I don’t think we have a chemistry / FWOOOOOOM-WOOP!” Finally, “Umami / Water” is the album’s best, juxtaposing less knotty verses with a menacing “UMAMI” scream that dissolves immediately after materializing and a descending dulcet synth line with heavy-ass bass throbs (particularly love how those bass throbs sometimes punctuates those vocal samples), before Evian Christ comes in with a ringing guitar and pure dread for the beat switch.
The album lets up a bit after that, with “Lisa” and “Chops” as filler – the former sees Le1f’s tendency towards histrionics over a beat is nothing to write home about (especially after the onslaught of the preceding songs); the latter is a self-produced instrumental piffle. Elsewhere, “Cheap ” is a minor success and closer “Change” might be a little on-the-nose, especially with Blood Orange (a like-minded artist)’s signature 80s throwback production (though he supplies a good chorus) and the record’s final minutes given to Le1f’s own mother to reiterate the core theme. “Tell” (with some chap named Don Christian who sings without melody), is the weakest of the album’s proper songs because for the first time on the album, but the message ahead of the music. This is especially in comparison to “Taxi,” which Le1f starting writing as early as 16 after a crush rejected him citing the reason of him being “too dark”; the song doesn’t just languish in defeat like “Tell” does – the choruses, replete with commands of “Move, swerve, bounce” and reassurances of “Boys pass me like taxis do / I don’t care, whatever, it’s cool.”