Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Will LES really be MORE?

"Can you actually make a career out of a thousand die-hard fans? It won't make you a multimillionaire but as long as you can keep the lights on and you've got a captive audience that is engaged with your content, it buys you that extra day to walk into the studio and maybe make a record that's going to change your life. It's about creating an environment that fosters and nurtures real creativity from artists and allows them to make a living while contributing to the culture of today and tomorrow."--Grammy nominated artist Ryan Leslie.

When it comes to good music, less is never more. Ryan Leslie, however, asserts that he is an exception to this rule. His third studio album which was set to be released last 4th of July, proclaims that "Les is More" and I must say that I agree. At least to a certain degree. Leslie is far more than your average producer, instrumentalist, singer, song writer, or rapper. He is all of the above in one man. After scoring a perfect 1600 on the SATs at the age of 14 Leslie decided to quit high school and matriculate at Harvard (yes, he matriculated at Harvard without earning a high school diploma). Four years later Leslie earned his undergraduate degree in Political Science and Macroeconomics at the age of 19...when most other people are entering college. Even after being put on academic probation three times during his Harvard career because, according to him, of the amount of time he devoted to making music and teaching himself the basics, he still won the honor of presenting the prestigious Harvard Oration at his commencement ceremony.

Ryan Leslie - Addiction

Fast-forward to his music career. After a slow start, Leslie's talented was recognized by Diddy and has since produced songs for Beyoncé, Britney Spears, and that hit by Cassie (Me & U, which he also wrote). Since then, Leslie has released two studio albums: the self-titled Ryan Leslie, and Transitions - both in 2009. In general, Leslie offers a smooth, relaxing yet up-beat contemporary R&B style with multi-instrumental and electronic beats. Overall, however, Leslie is a better producer and instrumentalist than a singer. He often posts "making of..." videos on YouTube that displays his production and arrangement skills. Take a look at the video below or better yet, the making of "Addiction", which offers more depth and insight. In addition to his in-studio skill set Leslie is also talented on the business aspect of the music industry and is an active entrepreneur who had quickly realized the potential of internet-based social networking in music promotion. As one article in The Harvard Crimson stated "Leslie is a master of marketing, harnessing the power of YouTube, Twitter, and MySpace to create an expansive fan base." If you haven't heard of Ryan Leslie then it's probably your fault.

 The making of "Hello" with Jasmine Villegas.

His first album, Ryan Leslie, offered songs such as "Diamond Girl", "Addiction", "Valentine", "I-R-I-N-A", and "Gibberish" - a track where he actually sings in unintelligible syllables but still manages to be a mood setter. One of my favorite tracks from that album is "I-R-I-N-A". On how this song came about Leslie explains, "I've spent the last 2 weekends shooting a crazy photo story for my single "Diamond Girl" starring Russian fashion model Irina Shayk. The concept required that we have some chemistry on set and since I speak very little Russian, I started singing this song and melody to break the ice and lighten up the vibe. By the end of the shoot, the boys on my staff suggested I lay it down." I might not speak your language but I know just what to say...does it speak to the universality of music or of love or both? It's up to you to interpret.

As if impregnated by the release of his first album, he delivered his second album nine months later. Transitions brought songs such as "You're Not My Girl", "Never Gonna Break Up", "I Choose You", and "Zodiac". The album continued the contemporary R&B vibe of the debut release with very similar style and taste. While the album is definitely listenable, mainly due to the fact that Leslie's production continues to stand out, as a whole it falls lower in my rankings than its forerunner for two main reasons: the lyrics are less than rich and although the beats remain enjoyable, there was less raw originality. The music on some of the tracks appeared to be a variation on the theme of those presented in his first album and one built on a variation of Queen's "Another One Bites the Dust". For me, Transitions ended up being the B-side to Ryan Leslie. And Leslie himself may agree, in several interviews he has acknowledged the shortcomings of his work. Speaking about his upcoming album with Interview Magazine he said, "until this album, I paid little attention to lyrics. I was generally content with the marriage between a great melody over an interesting and moving instrumental arrangement. Often the lyrical offering was elementary and secondary to the more sophisticated musical contribution."

Ryan Leslie - Glory. First single from Les is More

So, what will album #3 bring? A phrase that Leslie routinely exclaims is "they try to put me in a box. It's impossible!" This new album is an attempt to rip open any box that his last two releases would have begun to build around him. Contrary to the contemporary R&B sounds of the last two albums, the first suggested track listing of Les Is More -- which had a track listing which included "Glory" (the first single), "Beautiful Lie", "Joan of Arc" (written, produced, recorded, and released in a day), "Breathe", and "Maybachs & Diamonds" -- featured Leslie doing as much rapping as singing over what I would describe as toned down rock beats. With the loooooong release delay and what seems to be a rehashing of the track listing, with Glory, Beautiful Lie, and Good Girl the only confirmed  tracks it's unclear what turn the project will take audibly. Previously, in reference to the album Leslie had stated "it's just really about art and creative expression...I'm just delivering the message in rap form" and I was personally looking forward to that -- him doing something a little different instead of a "Part 3". But whatever direction this album ends up going in let's hope that Leslie's falls back on his words that "despite what other people may feel, despite other peoples beliefs and perceptions or preconceived notions about your capabilities, believe in yourself and apply yourself with the sort of the unbridled passion and what I like to call the "4 Ds". Discipline. Desire. Drive. Dedication." because I think that with that attitude and a genuine love for music good things are likely to follow.

Ryan Leslie is no doubt multi-talented, and I strongly admire his work ethic and his philosophy on music. But our main goal should always be to surpass our previous accomplishments in our craft and I'm quite eager to see if this forthcoming album presents the growth that was missing between the first and second releases. And it could, for in his sit down with Interview Magazine Leslie stated, "this album is the most honest reflection of who I am and what I'm experiencing that I have ever written."

No new release date has been set yet but let's see how much more R-Les gives us on this new album when it finally arrives.

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