The Come Up: Leaf Chooses Vulnerability Over Aggression for New Album ‘Trinity’
It’s been two long years since Leaf dropped Magnet Bitch, a debut EP that saw the Fool's Gold Records artist put the world on notice with aggressive, rapid-fire flows and the delicate beauty of her vocals. Since then, things have changed quite a bit for her.
Once a hopeful, freshly signed rap neophyte, Leaf started her own record label, MBM, which has many meanings ("Money Before Men, Magnet Bitch Movement, Magnet Babe Movement, whatever you want to call it"). The Brooklyn native's big break came when A-Trak discovered one of her music videos through Instagram, a breeding ground for young models and countless other aspiring "somebodies" in the world of millennials. Since signing with A-Trak's Fool's Gold Records in 2015, she's posed for Calvin Klein and found herself shooting campaigns across the country.
Indeed, Leaf's checked off just about all the boxes for ascendant rap stars, but in between an interminable stream of lengthy recording sessions, meet-and-greets and glitzy photo shoots, she's undertaken the less stereotypically glamorous but equally difficult task of seriously growing up.
That’s a point the 22-year-old artist proves emphatically with Trinity, a sensuous, energetically smooth trip through hip-hop, EDM and R&B. The project, which also details the ups and downs of being a millennial go-getter, features tracks like "Coming Down," where she ventures through the world of EDM, a departure from delivering her usual rhymes over conventional rap instrumentals. While she's always been the fiercely independent, "Niggas can't get to me" rapper, songs like "FWM (Lie to Me)" and "Gone" find the Brooklyn native exploring vulnerability as she navigates the pain of a failed relationship. Trinity is an album with fresh wounds, perspective and the rewards of more musical experimentation. It's also a project the "Nada” performer couldn’t have made when she was a 19-year-old rap upstart.
“You just start seeing the world a different way. I started paying my own bills at 18, but it was like the start, but now like, I’m paying my own bills,” she tells XXL of her growth during the last two years. “I have my own house, like you know? I’ve lived a little bit more life—no pun to the Drake album—but like, I’ve lived more life. And I just know now what things are really about, what things are really like. And I’m still young, so I’m still learning, but I just feel like it opened my eyes a lot to just the way things are.”
XXL speaks to the rising star about “the way things are” and have been with feminism, growing up mixed, and, of course, Trinity. Check out our conversation below.
XXL: What's Leaf been up to in 2017?
Leaf: I’ve been into so much this year. I just did a campaign with Aeropostale that’s in stores around the nation. I’m working on another campaign right now... Ever since then I’ve just been in boot camp. I'm working on some stuff. Possibly getting on Fallon. Possibly getting on Colbert. So I’m like, working on a lot of things this year. Started my own label, MBM. I’m super excited about everything. There’s a lot of shit in the works. I'm super excited. My song "FWM" right now is playing on 42 stations around the country, which is super dope.
Who are some artists you've been listening to lately, and how much have they influenced the sound of Trinity?
I don’t really get my influences from other people. I get my influences mostly from my life experiences and the experiences of the people around me. The majority of my music is pin-pointed just to uplift women because I feel like there’s not a lot of music like that out right now. But I listen to all types of music. Like right now I’m listening to Toro y Moi and Tame Impala. I’m also listening to the Drake album, More Life, I really like that. I really love WizKid right now, like, he’s so sick to me. I always listen to the Black Keys. So my music variety is always changing, so it’s not really I listen to one type of music. I listen to world music.
[Trinity is] definitely global. But more than that, it’s very versatile. Like I go into some of the trap shit, and then I have trap shit that’s more singing, then I have some songs like "FWM," but then I have some real R&B songs, which are like super slow, like, really getting into like, heartfelt type shit. And then I have one song where I’m playing guitar. So it’s like pretty much a very wide variety. But I thought I had to showcase my true talent and showcase like, me as a whole, so people could start to get it a little bit more. Because people are always like, "I understand it, but I don't really know you fully." So I had to give people like a full album with just me, you know?
It’s just me, no features on it—because we’re going to come out with remixes later. I wanted to give like, an album with just me because I felt like I have a lot of songs with people out there, but I wanted to give people a body of work that’s really just me at the moment. I think that sometimes when you give the features too early people like, kind of like, get disinterested, whereas like, I would rather not give the features yet and then surprise people with features later.
When you spoke to XXL last year, you said you grew up listening to jazz, Jimi Hendrix Earth, Wind & Fire; blues and guitar, to name a few. How would you say that's shaped your music to date?
The thing about my music taste is like, my music taste doesn’t influence my sound per se, it kind of more influences my lifestyle. Jimi Hendrix has influenced my lifestyle. Earth, Wind & Fire has influenced my lifestyle. Toro y Moi influences my lifestyle. But I wouldn’t say that they influence my sound. I think my sound is something that just comes purely from my heart. I don’t even—the way that I work—if I hear a beat and I like it, I just know that I’m capable of creating a good song, so I just create the song.
It’s not like I have this sound that I set for myself. I think that’s very like—2016, 2017. It’s very much of the past, but I think future artists are going to be people that can get over any type of beat but still keep their character and still be who they are, you know? I think it’s more like, I give you me on every beat, and that’s what makes me, me, you know? Rather than this is a girl who does this type of music, and this is the box we’re going to put her in. I’d rather people just take it as like, Leaf is a dope artist and no matter what song she gets on it’s going to be fire, because I know her. I think that’s why Drake is so successful, why Rihanna is so successful, why Beyoncé’s so successful, because it’s not really a sound that you think of when you think of Beyoncé or Rihanna or Drake... you know what I mean? You know what feel you’re going to get from them. I think that’s what I give people. I give people a feel.
In the past, you've described yourself as a feminist. How would you say that background dictates your approach to songwriting?
Well, I think that, one, all women are feminists, whether they want to agree with it or not. I think "feminist" has gotten a very harsh connotation in the past because people don't really understand the actual definition of feminism. All I’m saying every day is that I fight for equal rights for women because we deserve to just have equal. I don’t want more than any man, I don’t want to downgrade men. That’s not my intention.
My intention is just to uplift women so that we have equal rights and that we have equal say and that we say what we want about our bodies and we can do what we want with our bodies. Like as you can see from the president that we have now, like people are trying to take away simple human rights from us. And I think it’s never been more evident that we need to come together. So for me and my music, I just make music that makes girls feel good. I think that that’s something that Beyoncé and Rihanna do. They may not advocate for feminism as harshly as I do, but I think it’s just the time that I’ve come up in. Like, I think it’s more important now than ever for women to band together and just to speak their minds and just be what they want and to feel beautiful. So that’s what I try to do with all my music.
Because it’s like I don’t think of myself as like a man-hater or anything. I think that some of these girls may or may not, but like, I know for me that like, men are such an important part of my life and an important part of every woman’s life and I think it’s more about uplifting other people than thinking about who holds the more power.
How would you say Trinity is different from your previous projects?
Well, Trinity I think gives people a little bit more insight into who I am and I talk about a lot of topics I was never was able to be vulnerable about. Like, in "FWM" I talk about heartbreak. Like, before I was always talking about like, "Oh, niggas can’t get to me, I’m that bitch," but this time I really talked about my own heartbreak. Like, yes, this man broke my heart, and like, he really didn’t prove to me that he wanted to be the person he wanted to be in my life.
I have another song, "Gone," that talks about heartbreak again. And then I have songs that are just about turning up and loving yourself. And then I have songs that are about how all I do is work and all I do is party so every day feels like the weekend because there really is no balance in my life. So I think that… every song on Trinity is like a little bit more of me being vulnerable, which is hard. It’s very hard to be so vulnerable, especially to be in such a wide sight of people—like everybody’s going to listen to this. So it’s like, to be vulnerable on this album was a big step for me as an artist, and I think that people are going to see that.
Why didn't you explore vulnerability in the past?
I think I was just younger. Like when you’re younger you just don’t really want to talk to people about what’s really going on. I had a lot of teenage angst like, I was 18 the last time I dropped music, 18 turning 19. I had my first apartment at 17, but I was just getting out of high school.
I felt like guys never really like, they always shitted on me. I was trying to get in the rap game and it was hard because guys never wanted to support me, so I just had a lot of music that was very aggressive towards men in my opinion. And it took a little bit of self-evaluation and time and relationships and growing into being a woman for me to realize like, it’s okay to be vulnerable. It’s okay to fall apart some times and pick yourself back up, and it’s okay to show people that you’re not perfect all the time, and I just want to show people that. But I also have a lot of like, "I’m the shit" anthems because like, I’m forever going to be that person. I just love to talk shit and be loud and have fun, you know?
Who are some producers you're working with on your album?
I worked with Sonny Digital on a song. I worked with Soundz, he’s like one of my favorite people to work with. His beats are so dope. I produced one of the songs on my album. Sam Crack and Pablo Dylan, I worked with them on a song. So it’s like a wide variety of producers, including production from myself. It’s been a long time coming, so like I have so many different varieties of records that [include] some of the bigger names.
What song from Trinity do you think will shock or impress fans the most? Why?
See the thing is about Trinity is I worked so hard on it that every single song is like a 10. I can’t even tell you like what song I think will impress people the most because I’ve literally listened to it over and over again and every time I listen to it I have a new favorite song. And I think it all just depends on the listener. I have a song for everybody on that album, so I think when people hear it, even if it’s not a song that they are usually drawn to, I know they’ll appreciate it because it’s just so well-written and so, like well-produced and like, well put together in general. And I think that’s why I love this album so much because it really is a 10 all around.
Are there any new sides to yourself your fans will learn from Trinity?
Yeah, I think that people are going to—like I said I get a little bit more vulnerable—so people are going to learn that I’m not always this tough bitch that I put up to be and that sometimes I can get like, not down, but I can, like it’s still always about empowering yourself, but I am a sensitive woman, and I do have feelings and I do feel for people, you know what I mean? Like, it is possible for me to be in love. I don’t think that I’ve ever put that out there before.
And then on top of that, I think that people are going to get a little bit more of that like, that feeling people love from me—the "Nada" feeling—that people love from me, the "Yeah, I’m that bitch" type shit. And then I also have kind of like two EDM records on there. One is a remix and one is just an uplifting song, it’s like "Coming Down," like it’s about like how you’ve just reached this ultimate height and you’re just going to stay up, you know? And also, people are going to hear me on an acoustic track. I’ve never put out an acoustic track, so that’s going to be dope. I play guitar.
Do you consider yourself a rapper or a singer?
I consider myself an artist because people are always trying to box me in. I don’t just rap and I don’t just sing and I don’t just produce. I also paint and I sew clothes and like, you know what I mean? I’m always creating no matter if you see it or not. I’m creating shit. The last video I put out, "FWM," I created that white dress from scratch. Like, I grew it out and had someone design the carving. I’m always just creating so, I think people will see as I get more money and I have more exposure and I’m able to do more things, people are just going to see me as a whole, creator, but I’m literally just a creator. I’m an artist and that’s what I do. I wouldn’t box myself in.
And I think nowadays, like, what is a genre anyways? What is a one-faceted artist? Like I don’t think those even exist anymore. Drake is singing, The Weeknd is fake rapping and PartyNextDoor is like in between them both and then like, you know what I mean? Everybody is doing a little bit of everything. Like, Nicki Minaj sings now, Rihanna raps now, like, you know what I mean? It’s like, who even knows now? Beyoncé's been rapping, in my opinion, so…I don’t think it matters.
You’ve said you speak for mixed kids. Discuss your different backgrounds and how each has helped you become the person you are today.
My father is Puerto Rican and Caribbean and Black. So, his mother is Puerto Rican. He was raised by his Puerto Rican mother the majority of his life because his father wasn’t there the whole time. And then, on my mother’s side, she is Black and White, but she was raised completely by her White mother—who was Irish and Russian—but gave the majority of her life to Haitian immigrants. Like, she lived in Haiti for 15 years, has always been helping Haitians…in America, and has an orphanage over there.
Both my families, they come from no money. My parents are the breadwinners. And just from me being raised in such a diverse background and home, it was so hard growing up because I never knew where I fit in. I never really fit in anywhere. I was too “something” for everyone, you know? So I created my own kind of community of mixed kids; I always hung out with mixed kids. One of my best friends is Irish and Filipino, and then my other friend is Puerto Rican and like, all different types of backgrounds. One of my girlfriends is Dominican and Black, but like, she never knew her father so she was raised Dominican her whole life.
It’s so hard being the kid with no identity, but it’s so dope at the same time because you get to kind of create your own identity, and you kind of get to be like, your own thing all together. You don’t have to have too much of one background. It opens you up to all sorts of worldly experiences you’d never get if you were just sitting around being so stuck on your racial upbringing and your racial community. So I’m glad that I was able to have that, because it did make me a child of world music, and make me someone who was open to all different types of cultures.
My whole life, I’ve been obsessed with Japanese culture. I’m obsessed with anime, I’m obsessed with French culture, I’m obsessed with French food, you know? And for me it’s not because I come from that, it’s because... I’ve picked what I want and made it my own world. So I think that it kind of makes me a leader of the next generation because—there’s a word for it—basically miscegenation. Miscegenation is like a one-world identity where everybody is so racially unidentifiable that we’re kind of this one thing. I think we all need to come together and just unite through love and I think that’s the most important thing, and I’ve learned that. I don’t see racial barriers. I know there’s a lot of fucked up things going on in the world, I do know that there is racism, for sure, but I personally don’t see racial barriers. If you’re a good person you’re a good person. That’s all that matters.
I don’t judge people just based off of just stereotypical, you know what I mean? I judge you based on the experience that you give me. Of course if you’re White and you come up to me and start spitting racial slurs and you start calling me names, then I’m going to think Okay, you just haven’t gotten it yet. It’s the same with Black people who are immediately against White people. I’m like, Okay, well you just haven’t gotten it yet because there are people out here who are good.
Yes, there are bases of racism that we still need to get through, and I think that we all need to be sensitive at this time, but not all people are bad and not all people are out here to get people. Like, for example, my grandmother who is Irish and Russian, but has given her whole life to help Black people, you know what I mean? There are people out here who are trying to change the problem rather than just here to appropriate and trying to take over the culture. There are people who want to help people, and might have more privilege than other people, but they really just want to help. And I think we all have to be a little bit more open and let people help, and let people come in and do what they have to. I think that nothing will change if we don’t come together and I think all these barriers that we put up are only making it worse for everyone.
What are some of the barriers you have seen?
At the end of the day, I might be Black, White and Spanish, but I’m still Black, and I think Puerto Rican is just another shade of Black. I’ve had all types of racial issues like—from my best friends—I went to a mixed school, so I’ve had White friends and had them call me a "nigger" and tell me that I wasn’t shit. Even in 2017 and 2016, there still are racial barriers that we go through. And having Black brothers and being worried about walking down the street, like, it all happens to every one of us.
But I think at the end of the day if we’re just sitting around living our life in fear and we’re blocking people out, then it’s only going to make it worse. And we need to come together. We need to have friends who are White so that they can feel our pain so that when they’re walking down the street with us they see these experiences and it’s more vivid for them because I think when you live in this bubble you don’t get to experience it, and I think it’s important that everyone knows what’s going on in the world. Not just in America, but around the world.
What’s the Magnetic Bitch Movement?
Basically, it’s a female group, a female collective as well as a lifestyle brand that just empowers young girls to motivate each other to start their own businesses, to be female bosses and to depend on themselves. I feel like, as women, we’re sometimes set-up to think like, Oh, if I marry a rich man then I’ll have a good life, but I don’t think that’s a good philosophy. I think it’s better when you hone in on your own craft and you become this woman and then you find that man and you can be with someone who is your equal, not just someone who is above you.
Or even more than that, you can find someone who you both mentor each other’s growth. I don’t think equality is based on like, money. I was going to say a word, monetization. I don’t think it’s based on that. I don’t think it’s based on your position in life. I think it’s based on maturity and your mental. Basically, like, how much you connect mentally and emotionally. So I think that for women we just need to take a step up, like we need to start taking responsibility for our lives a little bit more, and that’s what my movement’s about.
If you could recreate Lil Kim’s “Ladies Night” remix with your own group of women, which four would join you and why?
Well, definitely my two girls on my label and then another girl I would add—damn, that’s hard, because I have so many friends in this industry that I think are so dope. My girl Crystal Caines, I love Abra, Tommy Genesis. Kamaiyah, she’s fucking sick right now. This girl is fucking sick, this girl Stefflon Don is fucking lit right now. Like, so many dope girls in the game and I'm just lucky to be a part of it, you know?
You’ve worked with Lil Yachty on “Nada.” What was one thing you learned about Yachty when you collaborated together that surprised you?
Yachty’s such a dope person. One thing that I learned about him is that he really is the person that he puts out in media. Like he’s no different behind the scene than he is in person, and I really love that about him. He’s really is just himself. He’s goofy and he’s funny and he’s really chill and he’s all about advocating for like, the youth in a positive way, which is so dope to me. Yeah, he’s just really cool.
Do you have any unreleased collaborations with Yachty?
Maybe in the future, I have no idea. He’s been busy this year. We stay in touch, but, I know that he’s always like, running around. But we catch up every time we’re in the same city, so, you know? For me personally, I like to work on music alone and then like, bring people in later. So, I just finished my album. Maybe he’ll get on another remix, who knows. But right now I have nothing [with him].
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