Leikeli47 may wear a mask, but she has a stronger sense of identity than many rappers who slap their faces wherever they can find space. She’s a child of hip-hop and ballroom culture whose reference pool includes rap icons like JAY-Z and Lauryn Hill, and fashion icons like America’s Next Top Model coach J. Alexander; she lets her music speak for itself, but infuses it with just enough biographical detail to stand out. As a black woman living in Brooklyn, Leikeli’s mark of anonymity gives her music a personal and communal confidence that extends across her three studio albums, all named after Black Beauty Treatments: 2017. wash and put, 2018 Acrylic, and his latest project, Train yourself.
Structurally, shape up is not far from the rhythm of Acrylic. Both albums revolve around heart-pounding beats that owe as much to ballroom and techno as hip-hop, and both eventually pivot into sultry ballads and love songs. The main difference between the two is the absence of a narrative thread, unlike Acrylic, shape up has no sketches or world-building exercises. Like any good sequel, the new album amplifies what worked before, streamlining an established formula without tampering too much. Leikeli’s swagger is slightly bolder, the intimacy of her stories a little deeper. She opens the second verse of “Secret Service” with a loud scene of her and some friends bumping into JAY-Z songs while driving a pickup truck along the Potomac River, and you can feel the subwoofer shaking the frame. Moments like these mark shape up like another peek behind his personal curtain, but it’s also a hugely entertaining rap album in its own right.
Leikeli’s versatility goes a long way in keeping his sound fresh. In her default mode, she mixes spunky punchline raps and gimme-what’s-mine swagger told in painterly detail. On “New Money,” she leads with a brutal shot at an ex (“My ex called me to try to talk again/But I don’t negotiate with terrorists”) and describes wrinkled Nike socks in her Jimmy Choos before ending with a softly sung coda reminiscent of the opening melody of Beyoncé’s “Formation”: “I want every single quarter, penny, nickel, and dime/You ain’t gotta mail my check nigga; I’m on the outside.” “New Money” smashes all of its talents to dizzying effect, but they’re equally interesting when they manifest independently in the streams of the hard-hitting autobiography that morphs into a stomping jam-packed action on “Zoom”; in details like the “assalaamu alaykom” that precedes a whirlwind romance with a partner on “LL Cool J” (short for “Ladies Love Cool Jewelry”); in the stage’s zigzag delivery of the ballroom she conjures up on “Jay Walk.” Leikeli’s words are moving, her sense of place amplifying the hectic production.