Houston rapper LE$ (Steak & Shrimp) recently released his first full-length project of 2019. The 14-track mixtape, titled Expansion Pack 2.0, is a cool 50 minutes of his signature brand of chillhop, with a ’90s racing game aesthetic. Following the tape’s release, I met up with LE$ at the midtown office he shares with his friend, videographer and longtime collaborator Jorge Casanova (Jorgey), to discuss both the project and his career.

Though not a concept album per se, the tape’s visuals and track titles feature heavy use of street racing and video game imagery, two cultures the rapper has long drawn creative fuel from.

On a sonic level, LE$ is pure Houston rap; his mellow bars, raspy flow and slowed down beats conjure images of Swisha House and the S.U.C. Yet visually and stylistically, he’s a mild-mannered car nerd with a penchant for Japanese culture. His Instagram stories often double as unboxing videos for Fast & Furious memorabilia and Marvel action figures. And if he’s not browsing the comic book selection at Third Planet, he’s wearing his Thanos infinity gauntlet or posting anime clips set to his own music.

This is to say, he’s not your typical rapper.

Last year, the Houston native with New Orleans roots travelled to Japan with Jorgey to play a handful of shows for what is apparently a die-hard fanbase. The trip inspired a video shoot for the single “Japan” as well as the 5-track EP Lost in Japan, which was released back in September.

LE$ has something of a cult following overseas, a fact that surprised even him as he watched a club full of Japanese fans sing the words to his most obscure tracks. Back home, things aren’t that different: A core group of committed supporters have kept his career thriving despite two failed label deals.

“I didn’t feel comfortable calling rap a career until just a few years ago,” says the artist, who’s been releasing albums and mixtapes since 2009.

Once a hype man for Slim Thug, he had a brief spell on Slim’s now defunct Boss Hogg Outlawz collective. “I didn’t make a dime,” he says, remembering days spent living in a small apartment above a recording studio making $300 a week hyping for Slim on the road.

The experiment was a stepping stone for LE$, but in the end it was somewhat out of character for a guy who prefers a low-key existence over a rap-life cliche. It’s that aspect of his personality that I find most fascinating within the context of his career.

When asked about that career, the soft-spoken lyricist lists his 2014 album, E86, as its turning point — a moment of validation following the departure from Boss Hogg and his first real success as an independent. The unexpected success of that project sparked what has now become a five-year marathon of self-released projects. “At least four a year,” he says, on his self-imposed release quota. “You have to to stay relevant”.

In 2016, Mr. Steak & Shrimp (his de facto stage name) landed another opportunity with a major label. He was briefly signed to Jet Life Recordings, the imprint of New Orleans legend Curren$y under Warner Bros. The effort produced a mixtape or two, but ended in much the same fashion as his time with Boss Hogg — with no studio albums and little financial gain.

Over the past three years, LE$ has blossomed creatively. Since leaving Jet Life he’s created over 20 albums, EPs and mixtapes; each project tailored more precisely to who he is and who he wants to be.

Expansion Pack 2.0 looks, feels and sounds like the work of a supremely confident artist, one whose tenure in the rap game has left him with little to prove. It’s the work of a rapper who knows his fans as well as he knows himself, whose rap persona doesn’t exist.

Whether releasing an album steeped in video game nostalgia, an entire mixtape dedicated to Step Brother’s references or one based on a pro wrestling alter-ego, LE$ seems to be having more fun than his competition. It’s a fact that comes through clear as day in his music.

LE$ is currently planning the logistics of his next trip to Japan in addition to a mini tour with Bun B that will likely spawn another EP or two. As we sit in their office, LE$ and Jorgey laugh as they reminisce on their brokest days. Outside sit two very fast cars, one for each of them. Jorgey prints shipping labels for a stack of merch he’s getting ready to ship while LE$ tells me about his place in the suburbs. This is the casual comfort of two artists who made it without compromise.

This is what it looks like to live your dream.