He's a songwriter, producer, savvy self-promoter and super scholar (perfect 1600 SAT score, Harvard diploma in hand by 19) who's collaborated with some of music's biggest names (Sean "Diddy" Combs, Britney Spears, Beyonce, Snoop Dogg, LL Cool J), but chances are that you haven't heard of Ryan Leslie the recording artist....yet. And if you're among that group, Mr. Leslie, who's already garnered a loyal overseas following thanks to his European-only release, 2005's Just Right, hopes to get on your radar (and in your changer) with his ambitious and crisply produced US debut, Ryan Leslie.
Thanks to the first half of the CD, the Harlem-based Mr. Leslie may come off to R&B listeners as more like a rapper than a singer: his vocals are both cool and cocky with a dash of smooth, like a mixture of Kanye West and Musiq Soulchild. He even switches from one style to another in the same song, which could trip up a lesser perfomer, but turns out to be a fine fit over kinetic, synth-laden tracks like "Diamond Girl" and "Quicksand." In addition to being refreshingly versatile, Mr. Leslie also deserves kudos for creating tracks that are more melodic than mechanical (thanks to his knack for mixing live and programmed music), which in turn anchor lyrics filled with genuine expression instead of recycled 'baller/player' cliches. It's hard not to nod along with the sunlit "You're Fly," or to feel the sweetness in the shimmery "Valentine" (where he displays a supple falsetto to boot). "How It Was Supposed To Be," where he admits that unhappily-ever-after is the last scenario he expected, demonstrates a vulnerablility seldom-heard by today's bravado-filled musical macks.
Even those who don't care for the hip-hop influenced portion of his CD will find other tracks to gravitate to. "Irina" is a sweetly-sung, buoyant tribute a special lady, and one of the collection's standouts, "Out Of The Blue," has a celestial feel that belies the dejection he experiences after abandonment: "What would you do, tell me, if I left you out of the blue? Would you fight back tears while your heart gets torn to pieces? Cuz' that's what I did when you, left me...." "Shouldn't Have To Wait" and "Wanna Be Good 2 U," even as they hover on the pedestrian end, are enjoyable listens, which can't, unfortunately, be said of "Gibberish," the lone ballad that closes out the dozen. What could've been a sweet slow jam spirals into an unlistenable, annoyingly Auto-Tuned mess.
So, in the end, does Ryan Leslie live up to the hype? Surprisingly, it does: he's not the most organic of performers, but Mr. Leslie certainly carves out a niche for himself amongst his peers as a creator of worthwhile street-smart R&B.
By Melody Charles