Happy 10th Anniversary to Ryan Leslie’s eponymous debut album Ryan Leslie, originally released February 10, 2009.
By no means does Ryan Leslie lead a normal life. He shares his phone number with anyone who visits his Twitter. His Instagram page is filled with private jet landings. And he has a habit of hosting parties inside of castles. No, really—castles. Leslie has built this unique life through music, a field that elevates a select few. But the rarities he enjoys now come after a more common experience: having dreams that are deferred.
Leslie was drawn to music during his childhood as he heard his parents play instruments in their home. As he grew older, Leslie envisioned himself as a recording artist and worked towards that even while following a conventional path. As he studied in college, Leslie remade the beats of songs he loved, wrote his own lyrics to them and performed his renditions at events. His skill developed so much that a demo he produced helped another singer land a record deal in 2001. But despite all of this work, Leslie still lacked a big break of his own.
Instead of being signed as an artist, Leslie worked as a producer for years. He contributed to music by the likes of Beyoncé, New Edition and Britney Spears. Many people would have just accepted this role, and Leslie was prompted to do so by executives who stressed the money he stood to make. But for Leslie, his aspirations were worth more than a dollar amount.
So he continued to pursue an artist deal, eventually landing one and making an album titled Just Right. Unfortunately, the LP was shelved, as executives felt it didn't compare to "Hot 2 Nite"—a song Leslie initially made for himself but then gave to New Edition. This setback summed up Leslie's experience in music to that point. His talent was clear to see, but executives saw it as a tool to support other acts rather than an act of its own.
Still in all, Leslie held on to his dream and it finally came to be in 2009 as he released his eponymous debut. The album proved that Leslie performs just as well on the main stage as he does behind the curtain.
Before his LP arrived, Leslie exposed his talent to fans with a much cooler medium than liner notes. He uploaded clips to YouTube that featured him making the beats to songs he produced and recording tracks of his own. The videos are funny at times, thanks to orchestrated phone calls and moments when Leslie dances like George Jefferson. But the laughs don't keep the clips from being impressive. Leslie's passion and skill as a musician comes across in every note he plays.
Leslie built some buzz with the videos, but once his album was released, it was clear that he deserved even more anticipation. Ryan Leslie is a great album that starts strong and never wavers. The opening track is "Diamond Girl," also the LP’s lead single. On the song, Leslie's production is both nostalgic and modern. The drums have a live band feel, but they combine with crescendos that sound like the start of a video game.
These sounds form an upbeat track and Leslie matches the track's vibrance. His voice glides as he sings the chorus, and his lyrics are filled with confidence as he tries to charm the woman on his mind. Leslie's confidence peaks on the third verse, as he raps while doing ad-libs with his falsetto. Altogether, the catchy cut exemplifies just how much Leslie can do with a song, and why he believed in himself when executives didn't. His first words on the song sum it up: "They tried to put me in a box...it's impossible!"
On the following track, titled "Addiction," Leslie continues to push the boundaries of how R&B can sound. So many instruments come together on the beat that it's fit for an orchestra. The production combines bongos, keys and synths to create a hypnotic sound. The song's allure is amplified by the chorus sung by Cassie. Her voice captures the feeling of temptation, embodying the type of woman Leslie sings about in his verses.
"Addiction" depicts a romance based on obsession, but the following track presents a more innocent kind of love. "You're Fly" is a feel-good record that captures the devotion that defines a lot of classic R&B and Soul music. Leslie sings, "You can see it when you look around / Yeah, it's obvious the way everybody is staring at you / I'm so happy that I finally found / I found someone to show my love, and it's you, babe." Here and throughout the song, Leslie sounds enamored. His lyrics call back memories of when you approached your crush for the first time. And the strings and harmonies on the song add to its warmth.
Another joyful cut that stands out is "I-R-I-N-A." The song features a chorus and "La La Las" that beg to be chanted by live crowds. But there's another part of the track that shows what separates Leslie from other music makers. In a 2011 Interview Magazine piece, Leslie said he visualizes performances of his songs during studio sessions, inspiring him to embellish on his records. This habit is best captured by the last minute and change of "I-R-I-N-A," as Leslie delivers a beat breakdown that deserves to be played at every awards show. You might want to check your pulse if it doesn’t move you.
This moment and most of Leslie's debut are heavily inspired by romance, but tracks like "How It Was Supposed To Be" and "Shouldn't Have To Wait" still bring heartbreak to the forefront. And the most vulnerable number of all is "Out Of The Blue." If the first words in a song are, "I light a candle for you tonight," it's a safe bet that the singer's going through it. From there, Leslie laments the mistakes that caused a breakup, with hopes of winning back the love he lost. You can hear the pain every time he sings, "Now what would you doooooo..."
Leslie's words help to make "Out Of The Blue" an emotional cut. Yet, the omission of words is what makes the final song on Ryan Leslie just as moving. The LP ends with "Gibberish," a song that—quite fittingly—features a lot of gibberish. Outside of a few phrases, Leslie spends five minutes mumbling as if he's laying a reference track. Leslie considered adding lyrics to the song thanks to advice from John Legend. But Leslie heeded the counsel of his manager, the late Ed Woods, and released the song as is.
Thanks to Woods' input, "Gibberish" demonstrates just how much power lies in melody. The song is infectious, inviting fans to sing along even though they don't have words to sing. Leslie's melodies combine with synths and horns to build a sense of hope and affection. These feelings prevail without being stated outright, reminding fans that music doesn't need lyrics to express emotion. The song has proven to be prophetic given the rise of mumble rap in recent years. Yet when it comes to today's R&B, "Gibberish" has yet to be matched.
The cut is one of many great songs offered by Leslie's debut. Unfortunately, the album's commercial performance didn't reflect that. Ryan Leslie peaked at #35 on the Billboard 200. It never went Gold and its singles never became chart-topping hits.
Leslie's debut may not have entered public consciousness, but the circumstances around the album did. Much of the LP is inspired by Leslie's breakup with Cassie, who would go on to be with Diddy soon after. This situation placed Leslie at the center of gossip, a much different type of attention than his talent deserved. And Leslie suffered more setbacks in the public eye after a laptop of his was stolen, leading to a lawsuit that compromised his money and his catalog.
These bad memories come up often when fans hear Leslie's name today. Yet, this hasn't kept Leslie from bouncing back in recent years. He's developed a system called SuperPhone that offers new ways for indie artists to maximize their audiences. Leslie has shown the system's value with his own music career, as he's earned millions of dollars from albums and tours without much publicity or any support from major labels.
Leslie's work in tech has, both figuratively and literally, changed his fortune. But fans of his music would still like to see him earn fame. As of now, Leslie deserves an episode on Unsung because the masses may not otherwise learn about his greatness. But for those who know, Leslie's legacy is intact. His debut remains one of the best R&B albums to be released since Usher's Confessions. And I'd dare to say Leslie values his autonomy more than celebrity. Leslie fought to be an artist on his own terms, and that's exactly what he is today.