Truly resonant music has the uncanny ability to be both localized and transcendent. We’re talking about rap that sounds like a specific cross street in East New York, and another street in Virginia, and in California, and in anywhere nail salons and humanity are plentiful. This is the story of Acrylic, the second in a trilogy of albums dedicated to setting, Black love, and growth written, rapped, and presented by the one and only ageless and faceless Brooklyn MC, Leikeli47. And there really only is one Leikeli47.
“Yup, 47 don’ leveled up on these hoes,” Leikeli tells me gleefully over the phone. Her music bangs and presents itself as an apt tour of 47’s streets and experiences, and her speaking voice is just as enthused and inviting. In 2017, she released the first album in her localized trilogy, Wash & Set. On single “Miss Me,” she spits “47 gon’ level up” as both a statement of fact and as a career mantra. “As an artist, I always wanna level up,” she continues. “I always wanna expand on my sound. I always wanna get better, greater musically, greater sonically. I think I’ve been doing that since I came on the scene with my very first tape LK-47. We’re dating back to 2010. It started getting some attention in 2011, 2012.”
Leikeli went on to flip that attention into an impressive career predicated on truth, love, and humility. 47 beats odds and subverts expectations at every step. As a masked woman rapping with the fervor of the entire male rising class, there is no shortage of uniqueness—not novelty, for she is too genuine—to her creative direction. Her creativity comes from summoning abundance with her own two hands.
“When you ain’t got no beat machine, you got the lunch table [laughs], you feel me? When you ain’t got no beat machine, you got the kitchen table. When you grow up and you have these dreams on your heart and you look out your window and you don’t even know how you gon’ get it, that’s what pushes me. When you come from nothing, the ability to learn how to use the things that are around you, that’s always stuck with me.” —Leikeli47
“I’m the one, the only, the first, and the last Leikeli47,” she says with gusto. Breaking down her creative process, her no-holds-barred energy is the kingpin to her ever-expanding formula. 47’s confidence is empowering, and nothing if not attractive. Really everything about 47’s music and approach is magnetic—and she knows it. Leikeli47 understands her seismic pull, and she does not take it for granted. Every word, pivot, and growth spurt counts because people are watching and people are learning, and the lessons we leave behind are more important than our egos.
“One thing I want people to take from me is to walk into your honesty,” she tells me. “Be honest with your message, don’t be scared of it. Don’t be scared to be weird, to be quirky. Don’t be scared to be judged. Live in your moment. Also, be kind. Be loving. Listen. Remember, you’re putting that out there unto people, so make sure you’re doing it with love.”
That penchant for love inspired the ethos of Acrylic. “[I’m] inviting you guys into my world, onto my avenues and onto my streets,” she says of the album. Across 19 tracks, 47 tells 19 equally important stories, each of which expresses a deep love for HBCUs, Black love, “love, period,” and a genuine love for humanity. Acrylic may be Leikeli’s most hard-hitting album to date (“One, acrylic is a hard substance. That’s how I was coming with this project.”), but the album also reveals her to be a true empath, something the world is sorely lacking.
For all the hard-hitting energy, there’s a fairy-tale quality to Acrylic, particularly with the syncopation on the title track. Leikeli47 is not just giving us a tour of the hood, she is showcasing all ways in which her hood and all hoods are enchanting. The thump of “Walk in and smell the acrylic” is so tied to place—a place 47 paints in all shades and always with love—that we feel as if we’re opening the pages of a stowed-away storybook. These are the real street stories, not the myths told to advance an agenda, but tales spun with an admiration of Black love.
“[Acrylic] also speaks to a resilience,” 47 explains. “The thing about acrylic is, you automatically know where you are when you smell it. You know that you’re in the hood because you’re not gonna smell it in Sherman Oaks. You just not. You’re gonna smell it in East New York. You’re gonna smell it in North Carolina. You’re gonna smell it in parts of New Orleans. You’re gonna smell it in Chicago. It’s a celebration of Black life. It’s a celebration of Black love, and I hope people take it as that.”
“Acrylic is an invite to a loving place, which is the ghetto,” she continues. “A lot of people, they see our ghettos and they see our hoods as this really bad place where nothing but bad things happen, but the people that you press play on every day come from these places.”
“Up in my hood / Proud to say it did me good” —Leikeli47, “Acrylic”
Leikeli does not simply feel a responsibility to pen New York in a realistic light. She feels a responsibility to every hood, which is very Lauryn Hill of her. “I feel a responsibility to all hoods across America,” she admits. “Though I know a lot of people know that I’ve grown up in hoods in New York, there are hoods in Virginia that look the same. There are hoods in California that look the same.” In our current political moment, where sensationalism and scapegoating compound minute by minute in alt-right media and in dastardly well-meaning left media all the same, 47’s overarching writing is nothing short of a blessing.
“As an artist, my only responsibility is to be honest in my message and my approach,” she says. Her honesty—and the honesty of artists in her circle—is what is missing from our reporting of the very communities she celebrates on Acrylic. The result is a set of dangerous stereotypes and precedents for cities to be used to further political agendas. These same results drive G Herbo to rap about his Chicago with as much candor as possible, even when it is not pretty, because he is the one with the foresight to report on the city.
“I’m always gonna give it to you the way I see it, because I see people seeing it in a totally different light, which is completely untrue. Yeah, we come from these hard places. Some of us come from nothing. Some of us come from motherless, fatherless households. We come up with grandparents. Again, just because those are the cards and hands we were dealt, that don’t make us less capable of doing anything. The hood isn’t a bad place [laughs]; it’s a great place. You go to the hood, it’s always resilient. It’s always welcoming. It’s always loving. Again, no place is perfect, but one thing I know about the hood is that outside of anything else, it taught me how to love and how to be accepting of myself and of other people. Because when you’re from there, people aren’t always accepting of you.” —Leikeli47
Yet, with all of this implicit weight to the record, Acrylic is an absolute riot. The album is fun as fun can be, and somehow 47 finds ample ways to make fun sound refreshing and furthest from droll. The production is wonderfully erratic. Truly, 47 can spit over anything, be it the crash of cymbals and crisp snares or something that sounds closer to cyborg Ragnarok. The splendor and ease of this album, she attests, comes from being a student of the game and studying the legends that came before her. In terms of flows, Leikeli rattles off Biggie, Wu-Tang, JAY-Z, Lil’ Kim, and Lauryn Hill as just a few of her teachers. In terms of keeping it fun, the answer is simpler: 47 is obsessed with Michael Jackson.
“He’s one of those artists that could give you a message, but you still having fun,” she says of Jackson, something that is equally true of her music. “He has you dancing to some thought-provoking stuff. I am the first of me, and will never be another me, but before me there was so many great people that gave me a template, that helped me along my journey.”
Along with her sonic heroes, then, 47 would like to shout out the masked legends that gave her a blueprint: MF DOOM and Ghotsface Killah, and Daft Punk, too. “I’m very grateful to be along that lineage and to be able to one day sit at that table,” 47 notes with a measure of humility. “Those are the forefathers. If there’s a mask Mt. Rushmore, they gon’ sit on it [laughs].”
In 2015, she referred to her mask as her cape. Now, three years later, the relationship has deepened. “The mask is my best friend. My mask has been extremely therapeutic for me. My mask has taken this shy girl that would barely say two words to you outside of it, but when I’m in it, it gives me the ability to just live free, be free, open up. This mask, my cape, has given me new superpowers every day. It still gives me that Clark Kent feeling. That Batman feeling. Shoot, sometimes it gives me that Bane feeling. You feel like a superhero and a villain at times; it’s a beautiful thing.”
Somewhere between our discussion of acrylic nails and superheroes, 47’s natural wisdom quietly fountained out of her. Each word she spoke had a nugget of truth and another nugget of thought propelling it. She is a wellspring of sage advice and apparently has been this way since kindergarten. “I remember hearing this early—I’m talking about kindergarten early,” she reminisces. “‘She’s got an old soul. Little old lady, she’s got an old soul.’ I’ve been one to take to the wisdom in the room. I’ve always wanted to be the one in the room with some sense [laughs].”
Her wisdom, much like her creativity, comes from a place of without, and learning how to nourish herself. “It’s easy to get discouraged,” 47 admits. “It’s easy to think you are everything that people say you are, but I’m very grateful that even though people tried to sow those seeds in me, I’ve always had even greater wisdom around me to say, ‘No, no, they’re wrong.’ Soon as the loud one tells you you ain’t shit, that quiet one comes to say, ‘No, no, they’re wrong and you’ll prove it.’”
With that, Leikeli47 has never suffered through a hard lesson. In fact, she does not recall looking at any of her trials as particularly hard. Though she’s undoubtedly been through some shit, she never gave herself the opportunity to fester. It’s just not in her nature. She hopes to impart that onto fans with Acrylic, and with her general disposition. Her strength may be the most admirable thing about her, but the music is a close, close second.
“I don’t know how to sit in anything difficult,” she concludes. “The only thing that I know how to do is work through it, and work through it scared. The tear can’t get halfway past my face before I’m already out of it. You’re going to have hard times, but I had to teach myself—it’s a muscle, just like music—the moment that something gets hard, I don’t sit there. The moment you sit in how hard it is, you gon’ get stuck in that quicksand, and it’s gon’ be hard to get up out of that. The moment anything tough comes my way, I bulldoze through it. I taught myself how to run through brick walls so much, that hardships, I don’t see them.”
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