The White Mana diner was built for New York's 1939 World's Fair as part of a futuristic "Introduction to Fast Food" display. The little white hut was relocated to Jersey City in the 1940s, and it's been a dinky hometown staple ever since. Perched on a stretch of endless Jersey highway, it looks like a little satellite that fell to earth and landed in suburbia.
Le1f has been shuttled here from Manhattan to film a video for "Boom," which sounds like it's meant to soundtrack a glamorous, high-speed escape. The scene suits him well; Le1f's bleepy beats and ever-changing hair are as new as a drive-thru in the '30s. "Boom" is the first single from Le1f's new EP, Hey, his fifth release since emerging in 2012 and his first for Terrible Records, the label run by Grizzly Bear's Chris Taylor. The label's also backing him on some bigger-than-ever ventures, like a performance on Letterman. Hey's songs are uniformly upbeat; when played back to back, they (pleasantly) sound less like distinct tracks than an extended cardio-dance mix.
White Mana is no bigger than your local pizza shack, and on the day of the shoot it's crammed with Le1f's style team, friends, and a slew of extras. Six girls sit around the diner's circular counter, pretending to be customers; in tracksuits and fur coats, they look like liberated mannequins from SoHo's trendy V-Files boutique. Le1f, who is strikingly tall and began taking dance classes when he was 4, stands in front of them behind the grill. He's wearing a white jacket and matching, low-hanging jeans that keep falling down, revealing a pair of bright red briefs. A giant, bejeweled King Tut swings from his neck.
Le1f pretends to squirt ketchup and mustard bottles, and dips his hips low. Throwing a hero's ton of stank at the camera with just a few moves, he's a signature stylist with star power to spare. There's a small panic when he cracks a raw egg on his angel-white outfit, but it's quickly resolved, and his team of two stylists have him change before we sit down to talk. They want to make sure he's not photographed in the same outfit twice.
Le1f's ambitious everyday style is one of his distinguishing assets, but now two years into his rap career, he's perhaps equally admired for posting frankly stated opinions on social media. Le1f is openly gay, and his responses to the media's preoccupation with his sexuality, as well as his quick-tongued Twitter tangles — the one in which he criticized Macklemore's would-be gay anthem "Same Love," or the one where he responded to being called being "transphobic" — have amplified his presence in music and around the web. Le1f chalks these public disagreements up to his desire "to be honest," and hopes they don't overshadow his music. After his Letterman performance, he tweeted that he wants to be seen as "a musician and not as a spectacle." But his outspokenness may be in part prompted by restlessness too. After spending most of 2013 on the road, playing dance clubs, small theaters, and a few Australian festivals in support of his mixtape Tree House, he says he's dying to go back out.
"I don't have any athletic activity in my life," he says. "I'm literally falling apart from non-activity."
In person, Le1f is surprisingly withdrawn, barely talking above a whisper as he tells me that recently he's been lounging around the house, watching too much American Horror Story. At 24, he's perfect twentysomething fodder for a lame trend story — overly ambitious, stubbornly committed to his art, drumming up resources to back it, and obsessed with nostalgia. "I was born in '89 and I feel like that's my identity, being a '90s kid," he says. On "Boom," inspired by his childhood gamer obsessions, he imagines adult luxury in a Mario Kart world: "We supa dupa fly with the Oompa Loompa kush / Sitting out on Koopa Troopa Beach giving looks."
Le1f tells me he's using the Hey EP to get all of the pop songs out of him before he records his upcoming full-length debut, which he says will be "weird and fun or poppy and political — which essentially isn't pop." He hopes it will sound like a mix of M.I.A.'s halting first album Arular, and Dizzee Rascal's frenetic 2003 LP Boy in Da Corner. Rattling off skill-testing lines like, "Fantastic since Scholastic amongst dudes stiff like Mattel / Carbon copies look so plastic talking 'bout let's keep it real," Le1f is a raw talent, and like the idols he mentions, he's eager both to entertain his peers and introduce them to new ideas. But for him, rap seems almost like a stepping stone to a broader sound, or even another career. He describes the songs on Hey as about "Anything, you know?" Over the clapping beats, his flow can be practiced and deadpan; sometimes, probably intentionally, it sounds like he doesn't care all that much.
"My goals as a rapper is to be not so much a rapper," he says. "It's to be someone who makes good art. I want to have good records, I want to have good music videos and if I find myself being professional in other mediums I'm into that as well. The ability to be creative and be good at it and have it be consumed by culture, and at least be culturally relevant."
These ambitious words would fit snugly into a speech by Kanye West, and much like West, Le1f seriously desires to not be boxed in. "A lot of interviews are interested in my music because I'm gay without understanding the identity of the music," he says. "There are a lot of gay people who can't identify with what I'm talking about — and that's fine. I want them to be into [my music] as well." Le1f says that, growing up in "first world" Manhattan, he's experienced more discrimination targeted at his race than his sexuality, or a combination of "them together." His very existence — being a black gay man who says and wears what he wants in public — is political. And even though he says he's saving the serious stuff for his next project, he's too full-of-life and smart not to sneak some weighty lines into these fun dance tracks. On Hey's title track, he raps, "Ask a gay question / Get a black answer."
The diner's owner Mario Costa shows up around 8 o'clock to check on the shoot. His cologne reeks and his hair is moussed to death. He tells me that Akon used to come to his diner all of the time, and that this basically makes him the "Smack That" singer's godfather.
I ask Costa what he thinks of Le1f. "I never heard his music before but I looked him up," he responds in a thick Jersey accent. "He's openly gay, I'm OK with that. I'm a liberal guy!" Meanwhile, Le1f is out back in the parking lot, watching the crew set up a car to be fake-hotboxed for the night's last scene. At this little spaceship in Jersey, the future is bright, and hazy.