From Bad Girl To Workaholic, Leaf Is Hip Hop’s Next Rising Star
“N*ggas be thinking they slick, that’s why they all on my dick!” Leaf oscillates between a deeply aggressive bark and crooning high pitched lullaby-like vocals on her anthem track “Slick”. Listening to her Magnet Bitch mixtape, a brief, three track release that manages to be ethereal, imposing, and trippy all at once, I picture Leaf as the type of woman who will hold the room at attention from the minute she walks in. But, when I arrive at Galore’s Bushwick studio for our on set interview, I barely notice her in the corner of the room as she sits almost silently as Sage lightly dabs highlighter on her cheek bones. She speaks quietly, if at all, as she gets dressed between shots on the roof, occasionally snapping a selfie in the mirror.
Topshop Halter Top, Topshop Coat, Good For Nothing Embroidery Jeans, Nasty Gal Shoes, Giles and Brother Bracelet on left hand, Pamela Love bracelets and rings on right hand & Necklaces are Leaf’s own (worn throughout)
“I was always trying to create for myself, and I had this school telling me ’This is the formula and this is how you do it’ and it was just driving me crazy.”
Topshop Bandeau, Topshop Jeans, Nastygal Shoes & The Perfext Fringe jacket available at Bloomingdales
It’s this paradox between her commanding voice that’s so evident in her music and her reserved in-person demeanor that is at the forefront of my mind throughout the shoot. It’s not that Leaf doesn’t have star quality, at only twenty years old, she’s already collaborated with a whole roster of promising underground hip hop talent. Artists like Action Bronson and Ken Rebel are just a few of the people Leaf has gotten verses from, all before she’s even released an album. And, if the success of her Fool’s Gold label mates Ta-Ku and Kid Cudi mean anything, it’s probably a foregone conclusion that Leaf is on the heels of other indie hip hop and R&B artists like Tinashe, Jhene Aiko, and Azealia Banks to make the cross over from underground artist to major contender.
Her unassuming presence seems more like a personal decision on her part, to keep her head down and do what she needs to do, rather than bask in her recent successes. It’s a “work first, play later” approach that seems familiar and when I speak to her and learn that she attended New York’s prestigious LaGuardia School of Performing Arts, I’m not surprised. The art school has graduated some of the best and brightest in the industry. Namely, Nicki Minaj, who is well known to be a workaholic. Like Nicki, Leaf, creates music through a D.I.Y approach. She’s involved in every aspect of production, carefully controlling her image and her sound. She tells me this approach was largely inspired by the way other New York artists were able to use the internet and platforms like Tumblr and Myspace to promote themselves. “I was on Myspace first, and that’s where I was putting up my music. It was really crazy being in New York in 2010, because A$AP blew up and all these other kids blew up, and I was happy that I got to see that because it made me realize that you don’t have to have a label, and that if I was in control of everything. I could make all the money. I get to pick my own image and pick my sound and do whatever I want.”
“I was a bad kid in high school. I got arrested from school when I was 16 for graffiti and I got banned from chorus.”
When I ask her if it was LaGuardia that inspired that kind of work ethic, she quickly tells me that her experience at the school was a little unconventional. “I was a bad kid in high school.” She smiles at me teasingly, “I got arrested from school when I was 16 for graffiti and I got banned from chorus. I just went through a lot of shit there.” What sparked the rebellion? “A lot of kids there lose themselves in this structure that was put around them and they don’t actually create for themselves anymore. That was my biggest issue. I was always trying to create for myself, and I had this school telling me ‘This is the formula and this is how you do it!’ and it was just driving me crazy.” When it comes to the formal training she was provided at the school, Leaf doesn’t give it much weight. “I don’t think that I can thank LaGuardia for teaching me chorus and singing opera all day. But, it definitely taught me discipline and to create for yourself, always.”
Even though she’s telling the story with conviction, I have a hard time envisioning Leaf acting out or being arrested for anything. Perhaps it’s telling that even when she had run-ins with the police, it was because of creative endeavors. Even so, Leaf’s less interested in rebelling now, and more interested in focusing on her upcoming album. At only twenty years old, I wonder whether or not she felt like she’s missed out on being a kid a little bit. In an interview with Nylon Leaf disclosed that she started getting serious about music when she was 15. That was back in 2010, when she started putting her music on Myspace. So, it’s safe to say that her entire adolescence and a good portion of her teens were spent working hard. “Growing up I had two moms; a mom and a step mom and they’re both hustlers who run their own businesses,” Leaf tells me when I ask her where she learned DIY work ethics, “They’re very much DIY females and that inspired me growing up. I watched them go from nothing to everything, so seeing that anything is possible really gave me that hustle mentality to push myself.”
Zadig Et Voltaire Leather Vest & Shorts available at Bloomingdales; Pum Pum Socks, Doc Marten Boots, A-Morir Sunglasses,
That hustler mentality has gotten her this far and it’s sure to take her even farther. Despite a decent sized body of work, Leaf has, for the most part, flown under the radar. Some critics have pointed out that her records don’t always showcase her talent. It’s true that on songs like “Drama” Leaf can seem formulaic. “Blah blah blah, all you talk about is ‘life’s so hard’. All you talk about is ‘hate my job’. Don’t come in my life with that drama,” she sings over a synthed-out-bass-heavy beat. Leaf is at her best when she mixes unconventional melodies and her vocal dynamism with her personal message of female empowerment that is sure to resonate with the politically conscious women of this generation. It begins to show through towards the end of ‘Slick’ and on an earlier record ‘Sugar Mama.’ We can hope to see more of this combination on her upcoming full length King Leaf. If she pulls it off, there’s no doubt that Leaf is hip hop’s next rising star.
Photographer: Amber Assaly
Fashion Editor: Rose Garcia
Hair + Makeup: Sage White