The mysterious hooded figure that is Brooklyn’s Leikeli47 is one of the most enigmatic figures to arise in the alternative hip-hop scene in recent years. Arriving with mysteriously titled EPs, it was her 2015 eponymous EP that introduced the Leikeli47 persona to the world. Her arresting performance of anonymity aside, it was Leikeli’s sound that quickly became the most striking thing about her. F*** The Summer Up, with its looped, rapid-fire vocal stutters and sub-bass booms sounded nothing like anyone else in her field at that time, its closest relative the art-pop experiments of M.I.A. With her debut album Wash & Set, it was clear that Leikeli47 was unafraid to push the boundaries of hip-hop toward places informed by a distinctly Black femme experience, combining elements of house and queer club music in a way that felt inherent rather than superfluous. Tracks like Look and Attitude found itself inspired by the rhythm and energy of ballroom, leading to the fabulously gay fantasia of Acrylic, where she could be found sitting in Mugler and custom Airmax at the Fulton Mall while her male peers were poppin’ bottles in the club. Taken together, these albums begin what the rapper has referred to as The Beauty Series, identifying the beauty salon as an essential space of community and safety within the Black femme experience.
Shape Up, her latest album and final entry into TheBeauty Series trilogy, is at once harder edged than its predecessors. Like Acrylic, the music here finds itself located on the dancefloor or locked in fierce vogue femme competition, but where Acrylic was embellished with acetone scented touches of camp, from its 3D rendered cover art to its ‘skit’ interludes, Shape Up is more outwardly serious. That’s not to say the album is devoid of the sort of wry irreverence that Leikeli47 does so instinctively (in this world, LL Cool J translates to “Ladies Love Cool Jewellery”), but there’s a sort of masculine-adjacent performativity that arises on Shape Up that distinguishes it from what has come before it. For one, she’s swapped name dropping designers for powerful male figures, fashioning herself in their likeness. On Secret Service she’s baseball player Steph Curry. At one point she’s a Backstreet Boy. But for Leikeli47, ‘powerful man’ doesn’t necessarily equate to normative masculinity, per se. On Jay Walk, she raps an ode to the iconic fashionista and America’s Next Top Model judge, Miss Jay. Perhaps most indicative of her subversion of the connotation between ‘male’ and power’ is BITM. Here, Leikeli47 turns to classic reference points like Jay-Z or P.Diddy when she speaks of how she “let the ‘hood endorse me / Put one foot in front the other / Just like real niggas taught me,” before making the statement, “Bitch, I’m the man.” The stroke of genius here is that she’s spitting these bars to a Harlem house beat, the masculine swagger of the brag track subverted by equating it to an OTA vogue battle. She pulls a similar sleight of hand on New Money, freely flowing lines like “You ain’t gotta mail my check nigga; I’m outside” against a beat that sounds like an updated F*** The Summer Up. The old school fathers of hip-hop are a presence that loom large over Shape Up, perhaps more so than on any of her other work. On Secret Service, she brags about her friends and her “in the van bumping Jigga,” and like Jigga before her, she’s speaking a lot about cash: “See that’s how you get money like me / Look around tell me what you see.”
The concept of hustling hard and making money is not new to hip-hop, and Leikeli47 herself has explained how the “work” trope is a central theme to Shape Up. What she executes in stunning effect is a subversion of this trope altogether. Carry Anne for instance, declares the arrival of Leikeli47 as a woman on par with the men she’s emulated across the rest of Shape Up, both a reminder and warning when she snaps “this my pussy, I can do what I want / Hm, I’m a big girl now.” By adopting the swagger and language of hip-hop’s male progenitors, but doing so in accordance her own femme identity, Shape Up deals with the experience of Black womanhood like the rest of The Beauty Series before it, but in a way that’s a touch more braggadocious than before. Still, her tenderness is not forsaken. A particularly endearing quality about Leikeli47 has been her skill as a storyteller. She’s afraid of an emotional, narrative arc in her work and often turns toward the autobiographical to stud her albums with moments of genuine sentiment. On Shape Up, there’s the syrupy, slow burn R&B of Hold My Hand with its plucked acoustic guitar, or the sensual Baseball where she once again feminizes a stereotypically masculine trope. “You better swing,” she croons on the latter, and in a sense she takes her own advice on Shape Up, swinging from thuggish bravado to aching romance and back again. It’s the most well rounded and, well, shaped up she’s been to date.
Watch the music video for BITM from Shape Up below.