In the kitchen of a 1940s-era diner in Jersey City, the rapper known as Le1f swayed beneath ancient photos of Sylvester Stallone and Mike Tyson.
It was early March, and he was shooting a video for his song “Boom,” with familiar hip-hop imagery abundant: medallions, weed being hot-boxed in a Jeep, a Brooklyn Nets jersey. But to one side of Le1f was a handsome man, who wore a cooking uniform and a come-hither expression as he filed his nails. They body-rolled in unison.
“Welcome to Banjee Burger,” Le1f (pronounced leaf) rapped over the skeletal beat, as fog eddied around his white denim jacket. “New World Order. L.G.B.T. cuties all over the world.”
Although Le1f is loath to being ghettoized as a gay rapper — “i’ve already cleared my own lane,” he tweeted on Wednesday. “i’m driving now. bye bitches.” — he is the most visible and accomplished representative of that group, ever. He has performed on “Late Show With David Letterman,”toured overseas and earned heaps of praise from pace-setting outlets like Pitchfork and VFiles.
In a lustrous review for Le1f’s 2013 mixtape “Fly Zone,” Stereogum called the record “exhilarating” and a “landmark moment for a very particular club-rap hybrid that feels very exciting.”
In March, Le1f released his first commercial EP, “Hey,” on Terrible Records (in partnership with XL Recordings), a Brooklyn indie label that has worked with Blood Orange and Solange Knowles. “There isn’t a blueprint for Le1f,” said Ethan Silverman, a founder of Terrible. “He can write, produce, sing, dance and entertain. And he looks incredible while doing it.”
Le1f, whose real name is Khalif Diouf, was raised in Hell’s Kitchen by his mother, who worked at Pan Am and as a travel agent. His Senegalese father was “kind of irrelevant,” he said. By his late teens, he was immersed in the city’s metastasizing underground dance-music scene. He went to Trouble & Bass parties and met genre-fusing artists like Spank Rock and Ninjasonik. It was an incubator for avant-garde designers like Shayne Oliver of Hood by Air, Luar Zepol and Telfar Clemens, at whose shows Le1f often sits front row.
“It was a new New York story that was told via music and fashion and had all these iconic characters,” said Venus X, the founder of GHE20GOTH1K, a party that was a crucible for the scene. “Le1f started quickly to synthesize those ideas at a really young age.”
Onstage, he is in perpetual motion: He flails limbs, seesaws shoulders, writhes on his back. The sweeping pirouettes originated at the Dance Theater of Harlem, where he studied ballet. He shifted to modern dance in boarding school at the Concord Academy in Massachusetts. Bored, he tinkered with Fruity Loops, a digital music-production program. “What else was I doing to do as a black, gay teenager 20 minutes outside of Boston?” he said.
At Wesleyan University, from which he graduated in 2011, Le1f occasionally crashed on the couch of Himanshu Suri, a student who was part of the since-disbanded group Das Racist. Le1f created the beat for “Combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell,” a 2009 Das Racist record that has nearly 2.3 million YouTube views.
“He was always a genius,” said Mr. Suri, who performs as Heems and helped to release several of Le1f’s mixtapes. “People are just catching up now.”
Le1f began rapping during his freshman year of college, but as a fan of Aaliyah, Bjork and Tricky, viewed himself as an outsider to the genre. “I hated myself as a rapper,” he said. “I was trying to be pseudo-political, super-inspired by M.I.A. And it was really tacky. What does an 18-year-old have to say about politics?”
Now, his vocals are slinky, suggestive murmurs instead of staccato barbs. He knits social commentary with declarations of seductive prowess. “I’mma show him things that her crystal ball wouldn’t,” he cooed last year on “Spa Day.”
The rap universe got its first glimpse in 2012, when Le1f released “Wut” onWorldStarHipHop, a popular video site that often features footage of brawls on public transportation. The video, in which he jiggles in short-shorts and sits on the knee of an oiled-up man, elicited both outrage and support from viewers.
“It really was fun seeing people have screaming matches,” he said. “I figured since the hip-hop world wasn’t listening to my music, I had to force people to see my work and make some decisions on it.”
In the Jersey City diner, Le1f was squirting rivulets of ketchup across the counter as women in vintage sportswear barked from their stools. “I’m the elephant in the room,” he rapped, and who could deny it?