Issue #142: Ryan Leslie by Ryan Leslie
December 10, 2018
Released In February 10, 2009
Released By Universal Motown & Casablanca Records
Have you ever had gizzards before? Gizzards are a key part of a chicken’s digestive system. They’re essentially a muscle strong enough to grind up a chicken’s food (since they don’t have teeth) before said food reaches the stomach. Mouth watering yet? Exactly. It’s a completely unappetizing concept, and a rightfully forgotten part of the chicken. But if you cook them slow enough and low enough, and smother them in just the right hot sauce, they become a southern delicacy. To me, Ryan Leslie’s musical genius is that he has an innate ability to make incredible records out of gizzards. Ok, I promise I’ll only say “gizzards” one more time after this. From a production standpoint, Leslie always amazes me with his gift to find the beauty in the corniest keyboard patches that most of us abandon at first glance — the gizzards. He has tremendous musical vision; meaning that even though a single sound may be less than desirable on it’s own, he has the foresight and dexterity to craft the rest of the track around that sound to make it work.
Take “Valentine” for example. That lead electric piano sound is straight from the 1980s after school special collection. I think I actually heard it on an episode of Blossom once. But Leslie sees past the fluffy aesthetic, and before you know it, you’re rocking out to a mid-tempo Valentines Day jam, complete with ad-libs lifted directly from Sweethearts candy (“be mine”)! Or how about the lead synth sound on “Diamond Girl?” Does that record rock out nearly as hard if Leslie doesn’t see fit to swipe his keyboard instead of playing a traditional melody? Hell no.
This album has such a sophistication to it. Whenever I’m listening to Ryan Leslie, I feel like I’m a member of the Rat Pack, or wearing dark shades with a loosened bow tie, or having a cigar with a glass of Grand Marnier. What do “Diamond Girl,” “You’re Fly,” “Quicksand,” and “Wanna Be Good” all have in common? They make me want to slide into a room Risky Business style (fully clothed though). In addition, Leslie lets us in on, in my opinion, one of music’s biggest meta-moments ever. Many of you might be wondering what the hell he was thinking with “Gibberish.” Well, it’s a reference track. Leslie is also an accomplished songwriter, and songwriters commonly present more prominent artists with reference tracks that they’ve written. Essentially, the writer has figured out the melody, cadence, harmonies, and structure of the record, but not the lyrics. Many records get sold this way in all genres of music. But Leslie decided to give us a peak behind the curtain. I mean, who has the balls to do that? To include a lyric-less mumble track as the closing number for their debut album?! Gizzards. Sorry.
Perhaps the most influential aspect of this album is the documentation of its creation. See, Leslie was an early adopter of YouTube, and utilized it to wow fans with his enthralling, expertly edited videos chronicling his creative process. It’s amazing. He’s so smart, and deliberate with the editing that he makes you think that you’re seeing these records come together in real time — in a matter of minutes. There’s the late night alchemy of “Addiction,” and the auto-tuned session for “Gibberish,” along with many others on his YouTube channel. It’s hard to believe these videos were uploaded a decade ago, but Leslie’s influence on the web cannot be underestimated. In 2018, every producer on Instagram shows off their beats, their studios, their equipment and offers a peak into their process, which is a direct reflection of what Leslie shared with the world ahead of this record. He’s the world’s first viral producer, and he did it on purpose.
Most importantly, this record just makes me feel good. It’s what I listen to in the car on the way home from work on a Friday after particularly great week at the office. Or in anticipation of a particularly fun weekend. Or before a date. Or during a date. Or after a date. I saw Jim Valvano’s iconic ESPY speech again this past week. He famously said “If you laugh, you think and you cry, that’s a full day”. Well, I think the musical equivalent would be if a record makes you sing, dance and smile. Ryan Leslie makes me sing. It makes me dance. It makes me smile. That’s a full record.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
A melodic virtuoso fully enjoying the scopic boundaries of his own vision.
You know those people who can seemingly do everything? That friend of a friend who’s a whiz with woodworking and regularly makes gifts from driftwood… that coworker whose Etsy storefront could become an actual storefront any day now… people who floss regularly… From listening to his self-titled album, I feel like Ryan Leslie is one of those people. The album just oozes competency and proficiency, from stadium-ready production that could fool even the most devoted fans of the vaunted Timbaland-Timberlake alliance (cheers in particular to the gauzy synths and sampled interjections of “Hey” in “Quicksand“) to lyrical turns of phrase that feel genuinely fresh (like “I’ll stay true / You keep it real” in “Diamond Girl“) and pop-perfect choruses, like the one that builds via ascending notes in “How It Was Supposed To Be.” But you can’t even get mad, given how convincingly he makes romantic devotion a central theme. Between “Diamond Girl” and “Valentine,” I was getting flashbacks to listening to Beyoncé’s eponymous album for the first time and marveling at how exciting monogamy sounded as she sang. By the time I got to “Gibberish,” which boasts the vocal processing of 808s And Heartbreak and horns that feel spiritually connected to “SpottieOttieDopaliscious,” I was sold completely. Then again, I have to confess: I was sold on the album about 15 seconds into “Addiction,” when it hit me that I’d heard the beat before. WhoSampled failed me, so I actually made myself remember something: Clipse repurposed the bones of the track on 2008’s Road To Till The Casket Drops — an all-time favorite mixtape of mine. (Something tells me I’m not the only Off Your Radar-ite who took notice…)
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
When you talk hip-hop records, there’s a well of wide and deeply vast proportions that contain a myriad of ways the genre can play out at the end of the creation line – a.k.a. your stereo, smartphone, or radio. A few of Kellen’s past picks (e.g. Issue #125, Issue #109) have resided in the hip-hop / rap pool along with this new pick by Ryan Leslie, but their primary sonic qualities didn’t carry as much neat and vivid weight. There’s nothing wrong with a dip into notably older records and/or ones that harness hip-hop’s more analog and vintage style origins, but it’s nice to be reminded there’s more polished hip-hop out there that isn’t necessarily plastered all over mainstream airwaves and being smoked out of space by other multi genre-faceted artists in the crowd. Ironically, as I express this sentiment, the very first thing Ryan Leslie manages to do, is evoke thoughts of the one and only Usher who, is probably the last useful person to apply as an example of someone who’s more polished tracks don’t get sucked into the mainstream vacuum. Nevertheless, the clarity on the recordings themselves; Leslie’s smooth but consonant-piercing vocal delivery (“Diamond Girl“); the delicate way he sways between suave melodies and slinging a rhythmically driven line that isn’t purely rap but is at times only a bit too structured to be straight singing (“You’re Fly“) — it’s all very Usher-esque. Heck, Leslie even has a solid hook powered track perfect for the nightclub in “Addiction,” featuring Cassie and Fabolous (“Now I’m coping with my addiction [while all the girls say] I’m addicted to you / I’m addicted to you / I’m addicted to you [You’re my addiction]”). The case for my Usher line of thought further doesn’t let up when taking the flawless synthetic beats, drum sounds, and modern modular synth sounds into account. Now, it’d be foolish not to acknowledge that plenty of well-polished hip-hop / R&B exists outside Usher but, while I’d love to stick an explosive up-and-comer but still less mainstream saturated R&B hip-hop artist like NPR-endorsed Gallant in the place where I stated my initial connective reveal, Ryan Leslie’s often faster flow over sensual, slow burn-type songs, coupled with a not-as-falsetto-dependent vocal driver makes that hard to line up over the “Confessions” champion. It’s important of course to point out there’s definitely no worry of anything plagiaristic going on, but the straightforwardly emotion-fused vocal approach is terribly tough to deny. That said, I think it’s a good thing! In an elevator-pitch sized summary, it’s like getting the shine and the hooky addictiveness of Usher, with the more collectively diverse sounds of everyone else who gets to play off the path. Sounds like Usher but you’ll get refrains and beats you haven’t already heard a million times before.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
There is a rather stark dichotomy within the genre of R&B that’s very similar to the one that exists within country music. There’s a line drawn between old and new, classic and pop, good and evil. On one hand you have the original form, Rhythm n’ Blues, which focused on soul and blues standards, songs of love, lust and loss over a dancefloor-friendly rhythm — I get that. On the other hand you have Mariah Carey and Usher and their ilk, which could be described in a similar manner, if one was being generous. Modern R&B borrows from hip hop production and lately even trap, but it piles on extraneous vocal runs, melodies that read like the scribbles on a lie detector when the question is asked of me, “are you enjoying this?” So upon hearing anyone tell me I have to hear a particular R&B record, I am immediately filled with a sense of alienation. I like to consider myself open-minded, of course. But if it falls on the inside of the classic line, I’ll at least find it listenable. If it’s on that more contemporary end of the spectrum, there’s a strong likelihood I won’t. I’ll struggle from the outside looking in, trying to understand the appeal while inevitably failing. So I wait out the moment when its popularity has passed and I can go back to my musical safe space. But then Ryan Leslie is not a household name and I have no idea where he fits on that spectrum so he was already igniting my curiosity. Something about his record appealed to the tastes of my writer colleagues who so far hadn’t let me down. It’s important to get forced into places you wouldn’t otherwise go. But one look at the cover of Ryan Leslie’s album, featuring him caught mid-movement suggesting that the move would be to either take off his sunglasses or perhaps he’d just finished putting them on (indoors) made me roll my eyes in premature judgement. But then, there was something funky about “Diamond Girl.” There was something undeniably groovey about “You’re Fly.” With each successive track, Leslie grew on me and before long I had listened to the whole album as background music while going about my business transforming physically and mentally into a smoother operator — or at least operating as smooth as one can in your own kitchen. These are simple songs. They don’t say anything political but they focus on the connection between two people, the regrets of relationships soured. They focus on the romance, the swagger and the sexual tension between people. This is the music of flirtation and fun in a time when everything else is so politicized. And it was incredibly refreshing to throw all that aside and just sing along to “I wanna be good to you!”
Darryl Wright (@punksteez)
Lovechild Of The Music & Technology Marriage
Also featuring a musician Leslie helped launch into the world: Cassie.
I hadn’t ever heard the name Ryan Leslie before this, but I guess that makes sense because the intersection of mainstream R&B and hip hop isn’t really an area of the music world I’ve ever been tuned in to. I hear some stuff from this world occasionally, and I like some of it, too — Leslie’s work on this self-titled album from a decade ago reminds me of The-Dream, and I was really into his first four albums. Leslie definitely has more pretensions toward hip hop than The-Dream ever did, though, as some of the vocal tracks on this album are a good bit more rapping than singing. Leslie’s singing voice isn’t particularly remarkable, and his rhymes aren’t indicative of some outstanding lyrical skill. But what he brings to the table on Ryan Leslie, what will keep you interested and make this album a worthwhile candidate for repeat listening, is his skill with a pop hook. Like The-Dream, he not only does all the vocals but all the music too, and it’s there that Leslie really shines, on catchy R&B groovers like “Diamond Girl” and “Valentine.” I sometimes feel like hip hop albums are hard to enjoy without giving them my full attention — the focus on lyricism demands that I do more than just bob my head, and inevitably distracts me from anything I might try to do that’s more complex than driving my car. That makes it hard for me to fit too much hip hop listening into my daily routine. The way Ryan Leslie’s debut album manages to give me some prime hip hop grooves without demanding I focus too strongly on the rhymes makes it more likely to find a place in my day to day life… and it may very well find one in yours too. Give it a chance.
Drew Necci (@buzzorhowl)
Insightful Scholar Of The Underground
This album surprised me. I didn’t really know what to expect, but what I found on this album was so completely wonderful that I am once again left scratching my head, trying to figure out how I didn’t know about this guy. I don’t think I have the genre vocabulary to describe the different sounds he is combining, but what it is — it’s a perfect combination. It has the weird synth sounds of something from the ’70’s alongside the swagger of a rapper from the late ’90s, all packed alongside Latin dance grooves here and drum machines there. It feels miraculous how well all of these sounds work together, but the true miracle comes in the closing track, “Gibberish,” which should be a radio staple, even though the lyrics explain the title. Mr. Leslie somehow manages to convey nostalgia purely through his voice sounds, because he’s not saying anything at all. It’s an interesting song to close on, feeling somewhat like a “look ma, no hands” victory lap, but fortunately, the previous 11 tracks are enough to prove that he’s earned it.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
In what is perhaps the least surprising aspect of this album, Ryan Leslie is a confident individual. There is an air of, ahem, cocksure-ness throughout the proceedings. He’ll get the girl, he’s great in bed, the listener will want to hit repeat, et cetera. The carnality of several tracks evoked Marvin Gaye’s Midnight Love for me, as did its self-contained songwriting and production. (A quick side note: I wanna just stress what a relief it is to listen to a fairly modern R&B record that doesn’t have any trap influences. I’m just so over that whole sound.) “Modern update” was the phrase that bounced around in my head this week while listening. It’s definitely a personal work, both musically and lyrically. Yet, Leslie’s confidence extends beyond the sexual. He’s a talented singer and he’s got an ear for how and when to layer vocals for maximum effect. In other words, he’s confident as a producer as well. He constructs his songs similar to Max Martin, where there’s a steady building of elements as the song progresses — “Quicksand,” for example, is structured like an arena rock song. As such, his confidence is both in his songwriting and his trust that the audience will follow along with it. Not to say these songs are hard to follow. The opposite is true: there are sticky hooks throughout, so many that it’s a bit hard to believe there weren’t any big hits. It’s a cool album anyway, about as cool as Leslie looks on the cover. Fair trade.
Steve Lampiris (@stevenlampiris)
Sure, Let’s Go With That
Hitting the tonal hallmarks of radio R&B, but surpassing the sonic reach of the musical vanguard.
I wonder if I will be forgiven by J. Clyde for confessing to finding Ryan Leslie’s Wikipedia page slightly more entertaining than this fine record. I mean, there’s the 1600 SAT score, going to Harvard without a high school diploma, holding down a Government major on 2-3 hours of sleep while teaching himself production and selling beats in Boston for some easy money. Despite some academic suspensions, he graduates and then convinces his skeptical parents to front him the cash for a studio. Then, damn, he does make it in the music biz, hooking up with Diddy and making his bones by signing Cassie and cooking up “Me & U,” one of the most successful singles in Atlantic Records history. But instead of the House That Ruth Built becoming the House Ryan Rebuilt, Leslie suffers “artistic differences,” album delays and, while he does manage to release music, there’s always the sense he has to fight for everything. Somewhere along the way he also becomes an entrepreneur and a social media pioneer. Then, not too long after this album comes out, establishing him as a quintuple-threat (producer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, singer, and rapper), his laptop is stolen, containing literally million-dollar beats — at least that’s the amount of the reward he offers. But when the computer is returned sans music, he reneges and has the privilege of being dubbed the “cheapskate rapper” by the NY Post after having his Escalade towed away by NYC Marshals to auction off to raise money for the reward. Jeez, why hasn’t 50 Cent optioned all of this gold for the next season of Power? Anyhoo, Ryan Leslie, the album is nice, too! Despite saying he was obsessed with Stevie Wonder and claiming he wanted to “chase that man’s career,” my point of reference is mainly mid-period N.E.R.D. — he even employs Brent Paschke, one of their main session players, and puts a feature from Pusha T on his next album, Transition. After exhaustively ranking every song by the Neptunes side project for Mass Appeal, however, I’m happy to report that Leslie never hits some of the crushing lows they stooped to during their mid-2000’s heyday. But neither does he reach some of the crazy, ambitious peaks of Pharrell & co., like “Sooner Or Later” from Seeing Sounds, where they really let Paschke out of a bag. It shouldn’t work, but it does. Conversely, everything on Ryan Leslie should work and works just fine. So, while one hopes for a little more musical ambition from the guy calling himself Black Mozart, there’s plenty of sweet jam here to spread around your playlists.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
2009 was a weird year for me, musically. I’m pretty sure it was the first year since my teens that I knew fuck-all about which bands had albums coming out, and I listened to very little new-to-me music at all. We moved cross-country in the early part of the year, and between planning, moving, then moving again, relationship strife, a major depressive episode, and a ton of other variables, 2009 is pretty much a blind spot of mine. If pressed, I can say fairly confidently that Bitte Orca came out that year because my friend M really dug that album (it was also the year he introduced me to The Blow), that Hope Sandoval put out something I wasn’t a huge fan of, and that’s really it. All of this to say that I’m not surprised I’d never heard or heard of Ryan Leslie’s self-titled debut before this week, but I am also a little surprised because if it had come out just a year or two earlier, I’m positive it would have been on my radar (pun intentional), at least peripherally. In 2007/2008, I was the Night Desk Manager for a small hotel. Most nights, I was there by myself and I’d have some sort of post-rock playing quietly while my fingers whizzed across the 10-key as I ran the daily balance sheets (I find lyrics distracting when I’m writing, reading, or doing math). On the busier nights, I’d have someone else in the office with me, and would have to compromise on the music we listened to. I know at least two of my co-workers would have been all about both “Quicksand” and “Diamond Girl,” and I’m positive we would have played the hell out of this album if it had already been released. It’s a shame I’m coming to it a decade late (and that the album itself wasn’t released just a few months sooner), because now I’d really like to play it for the aforementioned co-workers, just to make sure I’m right.
50 Foot Pop Queenie
In “You’re Fly,” Ryan Leslie rhythmically croons, “Tonight I wanna try to engage your mind / I know you must be tired of hearing the same old line.” It’s directed at his crush within the context of the song, but I can’t stop myself from applying that line to the whole record. The lyric specifically jumped out at me because the song directly before it, “Addiction,” really pushed me back so I could understand and thus appreciate the full scope of Leslie’s talent. “Addiction” is not just an incredible song, it’s a producer’s playground with a wide-ranging variety of sonic ideas explored and patched together all to enhance a simple, yet inescapable hook. The first time that piano section came on, I was certain: Ryan Leslie is a genius and this record, even after only two tracks, is amazing. Leslie was definitely engaging my mind, and while his lyrics may be been close to the same old line, the music behind it was anything but. My early conclusion was supported throughout the rest of the record, with other fundamental hooks grabbing me in the similar fashion as “Addicted” (“How It Was Supposed To Be,” “Wanna Be Good“), as well as a bounty of other production gems (the twinkling funk of “Valentine,” the shifty backdrop of “Quicksand“). Of course, the full scope of his production talents is how he majestic he can make a blueprint track as is the case in the album’s staggering closing track, “Gibberish.” Leslie’s singing and rapping is well-suited for the environment created on the record, but not particular noteworthy outside of it. But that’s okay — that’s the point. Leslie isn’t the commercial performer who exists within the confines of another producer’s vision — he exists, and ultimately excels because of his own vision, one that seems to revamp modern day R&B even if it’s still got the same goal in mind. It doesn’t just succeed in this objective, it triumphs with music that raises the bar of commercial music even if the market isn’t quite ready for it.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
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