Leo Coltrane is an emcee and a Brooklyn native. His roots in the borough give him a closeness to Hip-Hop that shows up in his music. Whether he’s describing graffiti artists or alluding to dice games, he describes scenes that match the lives led by New Yorkers for years. On his first album, Leo is informed by his city’s history and the music it cultivated, but he offers a new voice and perspective.
On That Third Thing, Leo strikes a balance between the abstract and the straightforward. He uses images and references that call for interpretation. Yet, he’ll follow them up with truths that people tend to ignore. In doing so, Leo shows the range of skills that one would expect from a good wordsmith. He impresses with both the technique and the content of his rhymes. Leo matches his words with beats that have just as many layers. The man behind the beats is Jefferson Jackson, a producer who has worked with Ghostface Killah, Sean Price, Boot Camp Clik and other notable rappers. His production on that third thing could score a season of The Boondocks. There’s a soulfulness to dub Z’s beats that comes across whether the beats are energetic or subdued. His work is enhanced by instrument play given by some musicians as well as soundbites handpicked by Leo.
A lot of the production on that third thing is driven by drums that are reminiscent of the Boom Bap era. Yet, the album’s not a simple recreation of that time in Hip-Hop. Leo makes creative choices that complicate any comparisons made between him and past artists. For instance, the album is filled with short audio samples seemingly from old TV news clips and movie scenes. At times, the samples illustrate points made in Leo’s rhymes. In other moments, Leo engages the clips by using them to finish his rhymes or replying to them as if they’re featured artists.
The content of Leo’s album is impressive as well. To call it food for thought is an understatement. There’s a lot to digest, from political statements to philosophical musings. The density of his rhymes is shown on “if you run,” where he shifts between details of his roots as a rapper and thoughts about time. He says, “The stage performer and front page reporter/ is the same cat, whether I say Dash or rotate personas/ Maybe switch the alias, change the order/ or make the name tag a whole name longer/ Tryin' to get the spelling? Find it in the credits or the mailbox/ L dot Coltrane, author/ No such thing as one-way karma/ Round trips all your life, roll the dice if you wanna.”
Leo gives his album a flow by having each song lead into the next one without a pause. As it moves from song to song, the album sounds like one recording rather than a collection of separate tracks. By connecting the songs in this way, Leo achieves cohesion without making the songs sound similar. He also experiments with how his songs are structured and there’s a clip at the end of “silver lining[s]” that explains his approach. The clip features an artist defending his deviation from the norm, and Leo follows his lead. There are songs with one verse and not much else while other songs include chant-worthy hooks. Still in all, Leo shows that he can deliver the type of structure fans are accustomed to. His song “executive decision” isn’t made for radio, but it has a chorus that a live crowd can get behind.
The album’s standout track is “kids in the street.” On the song, Leo delves into the conditions faced by youth that fall into criminality. The song includes the most poignant soundbites of the album; one details how young people of color are lured into street life in a predatory way. The other decries the lack of rehabilitation given to people by the prisons they end up in. Leo rhymes, “Old heads get soldiers a lot younger/ Get it right, appetite’s gone. It’s thirst, not hunger/ for the revenue, short-term smooth criminals/ Meet the chief aka the troop general/ aka the school principal with lead that ain’t number two/ Out of luck if you only pencil-proof.”
That Third Thing is a compact listen – the longest song falls a couple seconds short of four minutes. Yet, there’s a lot to enjoy and unpack from the music. Leo seems to introduce a new flow on each verse, which is fitting given that the beat switches mid-song quite a few times. His verses show that he is steeped in the tradition of emcees. Yet, Leo delivers many rhymes with the rhythm of a poet rather than a rapper. There are a lot of elements to his songs, but he is still able to draw attention to the points made in his rhymes. Throughout the project, Leo shows loyalty to his vision rather than convention. In doing so, Leo Coltrane builds an identity that’s all his own.