Writing about live music in late 1980s New York, Kim Gordon once offered the observation that, “People pay to see others believe in themselves.”
At the risk of disrespecting one of my greatest heroines, I think Ms. Gordon misses the point a bit. The joy of being an audience member does not lie merely in bearing witness to a performer’s singular charisma. We buy concert tickets, wait in lines in the rain and the sun, cram ourselves into tightly packed, dimly lit rooms full of stale air and cheap beer and weed smoke. We pay these prices and in return we are subsumed, swept up in the kaleidoscopic salvation of sound, color, and movement. For a few hours we are greater than ourselves.
If this loss of identity, this collective surrender to a force larger than ourselves, is the benchmark by which we judge good live music from bad, Le1f’s performance at the Crocodile Lounge was a distinct success.
As I’ve written previously, Le1f , the stage name of New York’s Khalif Diouf, is the pre-eminent figure in the burgeoning queer hip-hop movement. Le1f’s appeal lies less in a radically queer co-option of rap (a là Mykki Blanco) and more in his ability to effortless re-frame the tropes of bling rap within a queer framework.
His tracks aren’t great just because they’re gay rap songs, they’re great because they’re fucking bangers that also happen to be gay rap songs. That’s not to insinuate that Le1f is not a distinctly queer voice, because he is, and his playful glamour and dance sensibility is pretty firmly rooted in underground ballroom culture. Rather, his music seems to actively resist categorization as “queer rap.” As he drawls on Hey, “Ask a gay question? Here’s a black answer.”
For once in my life, I arrived on time to the show. This turned out to be a mistake since it appears that the kind of Seattle audience that appreciates Le1f’s music is not the kind of Seattle audience that also appreciates promptness. Even when people did begin to arrive, I was struck by how few people seemed to have turned out. It wasn’t a tiny crowd, but it certainly wasn’t huge. One one hand, this allowed pretty much everyone to press close to the front of the stage and dance without fear of crushing one another. On the other hand though, it was eye-opening to see that even an artist who has gained as much critical acclaim as Le1f still has trouble filling a room. Nevertheless, once Le1f arrived, the size of the crowd didn’t really seem to matter since I can happily report that everyone lost their damn minds anyway.
Aeon Fux, the opener, was a tall girl whose pigtails sat high on her head. That, combined with a billowy white blouse and one oversize black contact lens, lent her the appearance of a bizarre alien babydoll. I’m pretty sure that was the look she was going for though.
For most of her set, she stood in the middle of the stage, back-lit by a laptop which was her only accompaniment. She swayed and sang indecipherably over gloomy, oozing beats. The music was dribbly and amorphous, anchored primarily by incongruously lovely vocals. The whole effect was isolating and surprisingly soulful, like listening to Billie Holliday putting on a concert in damp galactic dungeon. It was weird. Direct quote from a transition: “Most of my songs are about bugs, but this one is about a lizard.” The underage girl who had been slamdancing in the corner during the DJ set beforehand stopped moving and leaned back against the wall. Interpret as you will.
Le1f himself took the stage around ten, dressed in a floor-length white fur coat, an orange tank top, and what I believe were running leggings. His hair was braided and tied straight up off head. The whole effect was effortlessly glamorous and slightly goofy.
Onstage Le1f is lithe and graceful. If you weren’t initially aware that he’s a trained dancer, you would have been after the first few songs. He kicked and dipped and vogued mercilessly, taught and linear like a hieroglyphic. At times he was accompanied by a sole backup dancer, but more often he was alone. Alternating between snarling and flirtatious, his flow is even more impressive in person than on recordings. Despite his apparent effortlessness, the fact that he lost his fur coat within minutes and was covered in sweat after the second song stood as gentle reminders that the guy was working his ass off.
And people responded. Beginning the show with the SOPHIE-produced Koi was a good choice. There was no reluctance or dragged feet. When the first glimmers of deep-house synth crackled out over the floor, everyone lost it. And they continued losing it.
Spiraling through most of the songs off the Hey EP, highlights from his recent full-length Riot Boi, and even a few deep cuts off of 2012’s Dark York, the set spanned the length of Le1f’s catalogue.
Of course, Le1f is an album older and wiser than he once was, and it showed. Songs like the viral hit Wut didn’t crackle with the same kind of youthfully exuberant cockiness on display in some of his earlier performances. In return however, is a sense of lyric security and depth heretofore unseen. The double time section in Wut was tighter than I’ve ever heard it, and when he confessed “I ain’t got no patience, and I hate waiting,” on Swirl, he did not say it with the pouting flirtation of a teenager. He was weary and regal and utterly bored.
During Rage, the final song of the night, Le1f jumped into the audience. People crowded around him, shoving and jostling to touch his hands, his hair, his clothes. The frenzied energy of the evening finally boiled over into a whirl of bodies and thumping bass.
When it was over, Le1f slipped behind the curtains and was suddenly gone. We, the audience poured out into the street, shuffling and breathless. I wandered to my bus stop and boarded the 26 home, my head still fizzing with residual energy. And I had the strangest feeling, that if I had somehow closed my eyes tighter, danced harder, felt more acutely, I could have whirled away into forever.