808s, Shrimp & Steak: On Le$’s ‘Midnight Club’

Pete Tosiello breaks down 'Midnight Club,' the latest record from Houston mainstay Le$.
By    July 17, 2017

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Pete Tosiello eats Raising Cane’s every day.

Le$’s new tape Midnight Club is a 37-minute vacation. Houston rap can largely be summarized by a dichotomy between the subterranean and the celestial. At one pole exists the profane: slabs, syrup, four-cornered rooms ablaze with candles. Floating somewhere above the opposite pole is the escapist: astronauts and Astrodomes, smooth, unhurried journeys on elliptical orbits and interstates. The two are not, of course, mutually exclusive—the best Houston rap blurs sacred with mundane, heroes with villains, the quick with the dead—evoking each with a shared set of referents. To access the Houston of UGK, Scarface, or Z-Ro is to withdraw from temporal continuity, Skylarks indistinct from Skylabs.

As such, Midnight Club vacates Earth without ever leaving Southeast Texas. Its calm is its defining quality, but lethargy is inevident. There is no menace, although menace is hardly foreign to this atmosphere, its absence a conscientious, precarious feat. There may be hostile lifeforms at our eventual destination, but we don’t touch down for a while anyway.

Le$’s antecedents are abundant but cloudy when projected in relief. Currensy—ahem, Curren$y—is the most immediate, his Jet Life separated by at least an ozone layer from Le$’s. Midnight Club’s choruses are reliably constructed with chopped vocals from 2Pac, 8Ball, Biggie, Nas, and Le$ himself. The resultant aspect is vaguely reminiscent of Big K.R.I.T., whose influence might be more readily accepted if his career hadn’t been ended by a tweet, or whatever.

DJ Mr. Rogers, the architect of the affair, crafts a gateway into hypnosis rooted in touchstones. There is a luscious “Redbone” sample, a trusty “Summer Madness” interpolation (fun fact: every rap song that samplesSummer Madnessis good). The meat of the record is founded upon oceanic washes of 808 drums which slither through stereo. “The Mindst8” is pure yacht rap, more Men At Work than Rick Ross. “In the Whataburger Drive Thru” does its fantastic title justice and then some. “Bimmers X Jeeps,” featuring the tape’s sole guest verse from Domo Genesis, reminds me chiefly of E.S.G.’s Sailin’ da South, perhaps Houston’s premier intergalactic slow burn.

Le$’s 2016 effort, Olde English was epic in flavor, a feat of dramatic writing and mood shifts (not to mention the chopped version Chope English, a commensurate delight). Midnight Club finds Le$ relishing the cruise control. If he’s rarely the best rapper in the room—not particularly quotable, his lyricism more or less what you’d expect a recovering 32-year-old Boss Hogg Outlaw’s to sound like—he’s a consummate professional.

That sounds like a backhanded compliment, but I don’t mean it that way; I’d much rather listen to the best music than the best musician. Le$’s rhyme patterns are more complex than they sound, nary a syllable out of place, and his comfort in the structure of hooks and bridges evinces real pop instincts. The effortless narratives of Midnight Club are essentially static, relayed in a flossy, inward-facing first-person, as if Le$ need reassure himself of his own flyness.

2017 has already produced a treasure trove of late-career triumphs from Houston mainstays including Killa Kyleon, DeLorean, Devin the Dude, Slim Thug, and Z-Ro. Among these Midnight Club stands tall but doesn’t quite stand out, an endlessly accomplished, focused record that won’t engender hot takes, help listeners embrace their otherness, or spawn particularly strong feelings in any direction. It’s brilliantly engineered, has a great cover and title, and two collaborators making good on their vision with lockstep execution.

Last week I flew to Texas for the first time in my 26 years. A three-hour delay on the La Guardia tarmac cut my one-night maiden voyage to about sixteen hours. We took flight under the cover of darkness; Ezekiel Elliott was sitting in first class. Upon touching down I was met at ground transportation by a friendly Uber driver, benevolent vassal to a technocracy crumbling under its own corruption. Gliding across the tumbleweed blacktop, the early morning plains were interspersed every few miles by the beckoning lights of Whataburgers, where I’ve still never eaten.