It was a stacked Leap Day weekend in St. Louis last month, with more than half a dozen worthy music-related events happening on a Friday night in south city. On social media, it was unclear which shows would generate the most attendees, or how many showcases folks could attend. But it was a generous turnout on Virgina Avenue, where more than two dozen people packed a Victorian-style home to hear the latest from one of St. Louis' most buzzed poets.
Such an event might conjure imagery of brooding hipsters with cigarettes, or overheard conversations filled with narcissism and condescension. But forget all that. In its stead were the pulsing sounds of trap music and a waft of weed, rotel dip and chicken, incense and everything in between. As people mingled amongst couches, balloons and spiked lemonade mixes, Leethal the Poet surveyed the scene.
"We're gonna start in five minutes," she said, motioning around the room with her hand.
Poetry as an art, and more so spoken word as a practice, typically does not elicit listening parties or draw crowds for album drops. Those types of ventures usually feature poetry within a larger body of work — singing and rapping. But Leethal doesn't see it that way.
"People make it seem like poetry isn't rap, but the 'p' in rap means poetry," she told her guests.
It's a belief that has been with Leethal for as long as she's been a writer. A frequent performer at area spoken-word open mics such as Lyrical Therapy and Poetic Justice, Leethal isn't new to the talented crop of poets around the city. Her new album, Well...Damn, is the next chapter and dark side to her previous body of work, Sea Turtle.
Born Caylee Hecht, Leethal says she wanted to deliver a different kind of project for her fans this time around.
"With Sea Turtle, I was very much so in a bad toxic relationship, and I was in the process of healing myself from that," Hecht recalls. "With Well...Damn, it was me taking control of the situations I had a part to play in. I was also reclaiming my time."
Well...Damn explores the sort of growing pains and realizations that happen at this stage of adulthood. For the 26-year-old, it was learning the value of herself, and withdrawing from relationships both romantic and platonic that were no longer positive. Hecht's ability to put complex emotions into simple yet impactful stanzas is why her work has been well received by her fans time and time again. She's a favorite at open mics, and won a Slumfest award for Best Poet in 2019. A poet with strong feelings about life's inevitable lessons, her latest focuses on concepts of self-actualization, accountability, confidence and growth.
Sea Turtle was the opposite of that. With Well...Damn, listeners get the opportunity to experience what Leethal calls "the dark side of the moon." It's a description that is aptly placed. We get to hear all about letting go, while also drawing closer.
"I was dealing with a lot of manipulation and hollow friendships," she says. "I was very angry."
As each track plays, Leethal explains the piece's concept to her audience, truly honing in on where she was in her life, and how each piece came to be. Every explanation is informal and therapeutic, in a way. While it was her time to shine and celebrate the completion of a body of work, she opted to take her audience deeper into self-exploration and actualization.
"I can own my shit," she says calmly. "When you own your shit, nobody can call you on it, right?" The audience agrees.
Well...Damn grapples with Leethal being herself completely, as well as mulling over the events that make the album what it is. Each track is preceded by skits, or snippets of conversations in the studio Leethal had with her friends during the production of her album. It's unfiltered content — banter between women doing the thing they all do best.
And that was intentional. At its core, Well...Damn was created solely by women. About 98 percent of the tracks were produced by female producer Volume Speaks and engineered entirely by Lexxiiibeatz — both producers who've battled and dominated at Fresh Produce, the monthly beat battle in the Grove. Volume and Leethal have been friends for several years, and the latter saw this as an opportunity for Volume to have her beats on a body of work. Likewise, Leethal says Lexxiiibeatz was a friend who's always believed in her talent.
"This was very important to me," Hecht says. "I felt that it would be very empowering to have all women, because I don't think it's been done before. I was like, 'Y'all let's do it!'"
Even if you were to have no knowledge of her abilities as a writer and performer, Leethal has the sort of draw that makes her aura undeniable. She speaks with a soothing, raspy lower register, and her words flow with tranquility, even when she delivers venomous lines. That venom comes from Leethal's past ways of handling her anger. With this album, she noticed a visible shift in herself.
"This is one of the first times I was actually able to accept that I'm upset and angry, and not have to weaponize it," she says. "I'm cool with not being friends with certain individuals, just don't talk to me."
Like many writers and poets, Leethal says she finds comfort and healing in her writing. She considers her talent to be a blessing to herself, as well as the listeners that feel moved by her words. But, ultimately, she is firm on who her writing is actually for: herself.
"Honestly, it sounds really selfish, and I feel like all artists need to make this honest statement: My poetry is for me first," she says. "I'm not a role model, I'm the example. I can only give you a blueprint."[Editor's note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said that Leethal is 27 years old. She is 26. We regret the error.]