Hip-hop artists and groups that reign from the United Kingdom usually tend to stay there, unless they manage to dabble into a subset of hip-hop yet to be explored. With new territory discovered, the artist or group has potential to float overseas and capture the hearts of any shoe-gazer with a computer. Such artists who have found success in the U.S. include the Streets, with his fanciful everyman persona, and Dizzee Rascal, a pioneer of the mutated rap genome known as grime.
But some artists will never make it out of England, just as some artists will be perpetually stuck in the United States, for the fact that they’re not taking hip-hop where it hasn’t been before. The Leano, with his dire album Steps to Leanoland, will assuredly remain in the UK as a result of 13 tracks riddled with stripped musicality and straightforward rhymes.
The Leano, reigning from Wembley, London, delivers supposedly “socially conscious” rhymes that tend to be more callow and lifeless than well plotted and intelligent. Subjects on the album are versatile, including the negative effect of television, avarice and, naturally, sticky-icky, but where the Leano fails is in his execution, both in delivery and presentation. His flow is disengaged and unhinged from the slew of lackluster beats, resulting in almost an hour’s worth of near-blasphemy.
Leanoland begins with “Black Box Friend”, a hollow lament on television that attempts to cultivate a scathing critique of media culture, but the Leano never brings it to the intended level. Over the sparse ratatat of stabbing hi-hats and the drone of trite synth bubbles, Leano trudges through the track with a half-hearted vocal inflection, spitting ABC rhymes like “Sofas and seats face our black box friend/ Constant distraction from the paper and the pen.” Whether or not he successfully critiques “brainwashing”, as he puts it, he later contradicts this harangue on “Messing With My Mind”, a track that shows just how much better off the Leano is without his girl. He states, “To see a fringe on the holes of regret / When she sees me rapping on the TV set,” suggesting that he himself must be a member of the brainwashing media militia, according to his previous declaration.
Although this contradiction runs thin, some other parts of the album play to this attempted socially conscious persona. Most of the tracks are propagating a certain message, but are thankfully never brought to the level of brainwashing power. On “Money”, a track based on the crotchy thump of an early ‘90s drum kick, Leano drones out how “Money may come and money may leave/ But it won’t stand around when you’re struggling to breathe.” Sure, he’s preaching the truth, but he’s not suggesting an alternative. And because of this merely mild speculation, the message is lost in delivery.
Fortunately, the beats are captivating on two of the 13 tracks. “Twisted Tongues”, based on a deeply reverbified piano sample, and “Sex and Lies”, with its off-kilter ivory rift and Casio swells on the refrain, both manage to offer reprieve from the verbal mayhem. On “Tongues” Leano gives a vanilla glimpse into his Asian-British identity, while on “Lies”, he provides too much of an earnest rhetoric. Leano ponders the question “Am I the only man not controlled by my dick?” which remains as entertaining as it is embarrassing, almost like a rap version of every awkward moment in the American Pie films.
As far as discomforting statements go, the Leano manages to create an epic track titled “On the Toilet Seat”, a sustained praise of the joys welcomed with writing rhymes on the potty. Leano juxtaposes the idea of dropping knowledge onto paper with dropping off the kids at the pool:
Alone with my microphone
Pen and paper on my knee on the toilet bowl
I drop a shit
Hear a plop drop with lyric
Stick your face to the door if you want to fucking hear it.
With lines like these, Steps to Leanoland casts aside any idea that Leano could be a candidate for a member of the progressive hip-hop movement. Leano spends too much time circling back on ideas that are unimportant to begin with, and sounds as if he washes over the aggression that is needed to promote social change. The album manages to glaze over the true difficulties and problems of poverty and racial injustice in England, or any other real social problem facing his nation, leaving Leano stranded in obfuscation in the world of UK hip-hop.