I recently caught up with hit-maker Ryan Leslie for VIBE.com to talk about his forth solo project and first visual album Les Is More.
Much can be said about an artist who has a reputation that precedes him.
Ryan Leslie was a Harvard graduate by the age of 19 and then went on to become a beatmaker for everyone from Britney Spears, Fabolous and Kanye West. He’s also a master of strategic social media, responsible for Cassie’s popularity on MySpace and the subject of over 43 million views on YouTube. And now the multi-talented artist has created a new album done entirely his own way.
After recently dropping his second video
, “Beautiful Lie
,” out of a 10-part series for the album, Leslie caught up with VIBE.com to explain why he took a different approach in delivering his upcoming project.“I decided to do a visual album because I believe we’re at a time where technology affords an artist to be more expressive,” Leslie said. He returned to the viral vehicle (YouTube) that allowed him to connect with the world musically. “I really had to ramp up that distribution channel to make an album that you could not only listen to, but an album you can watch.”
Les Is More will be Leslie’s fourth album to date. He says this project contains more rapping to go along wiht his black-and-white visuals. In his recent “Beautiful Lie” video, Ryan (along with model girlfriend Kenza Fourati) is seen rapping about the good life in Paris, but taking the common term and elevating its meaning into ‘having something to believe in.”
Originally, the video was lost when Leslie and his production team came back to New York and even though the second filming cost triple the amount of what it probably should have, Leslie didn’t want to rob his fans of the video. “Evan Rogers, my cinematographer, said ‘Look man, are you ready to fly back to Paris and do this all over again?’ And I’ve never been a quitter.”
The DC native’s work ethic speaks for itself. Although his past releases didn’t translate into numbers that record labels equated with success, the now independent artist always acted on his passion.
“One of the best pieces of advice that I ever got from a mentor was take everyone’s opinion, listen to everyone’s opinion, but only really take advice from people who are in a position that you want to be in,” Leslie said.
He looks to Kanye West as the “benchmark” when it comes to being respected as an artist overall. West, who also started his music career primarily as a producer, is not only a peer but a fan of Leslie’s.
“I was making records and when he sent me back an e-mail with an emphatic, ‘Yo man, I love your raps,’ that basically trumped anyone else’s opinion.”
Now with his new album, Ryan does what comes natural once again: the unexpected. “Whatever you were accustomed to hearing before, this album is more.”
He also reintroduces the rap talents that fans have heard on previous tracks, such as “Christian Dior Denim Flow.” The song, which included Leslie, West, Kid Cudi, Pusha T, Lloyd Banks, Cyhi Da Prynce and John Legend, received positive praise from listeners. Leslie originally held down eight bars on the G.O.O.D. Friday track, but boasted 12 on the re-released version. He deemed the rapper-heavy joint “one of the great moments in and of itself in Ryan rap history” And a good indicator that he was on the right path.
“It’s my goal with this record to raise the bar for what we expect an artist to do,” Leslie said, not just posing a challenge to himself but to evolve as an artist. The extreme example of a one-man band, he handles all aspects of his work from thinking up the concept, constructing the beat and laying down the vocals. In fact, he was also is hands on with executing the video and editing it on Final Cut Pro. Not many can do the same.
In terms of collaborations, Leslie said Mr. Hudson appears on the track “Breathe.” However, he emphasizes that Les Is More is a solo project that chronicles his life, journey, travels and relationships. Another record “Swiss Francs,” includes French rapper Booba and showcases Leslie’s bilingual flow, incorporating some French into his wordplay.
Leslie also partners with style heavyweights John Galliano, Balmain and Lanvin to depict a luxurious rap lifestyle in his videos. However, he has not forgotten his humble beginnings and still recalls the whirring sound of his mother’s sewing machine on the first days before school. “My mother used to take fabrics and she would literally sew our clothes for us (he and his sister),” Leslie said, citing it as his first fascination with creating a quality garment. Since then, his mama-made attire has now evolved into custom-made suits in Italy.
Another person you can expect to see plenty of on Les Is More is his girlfriend. Fourati, who has been featured in “Beautiful Lie,” also stars in the upcoming “Good Girls,” set to drop before New Year’s. The song contains self-explanatory lyrics written by the rapper to his own: “Same time next year, I’ll be hopin’ that you’re still here/ But a little better than we did this year because baby you’re my good girl.”
Leslie constantly shifts the focus to his music, no matter what he may be facing in his personal life. As seen in concerts and online videos, his live performances emit an electricity that seems effortless. With that much energy on-stage, VIBE.com was curious to know how he preps beforehand.
“To be completely honest with you, I probably have the most inexpensive rider list of all time – all I need is a bottle of water,” Leslie said, admitting that his entourage often complains that he never touches anything in the dressing room. Although the list is nowhere near as lengthy as Drake’s, it has slightly grown to include peanut M&Ms, chicken wings and other tiny amenities, but his only prerequisites remain water and a couple of towels before rocking a show. “I’m there to work.”
Despite the record label setbacks and opinions from naysayers, it’s that disciplined mentality that has allowed Leslie to be an artist of all trades. With Les Is More, fans can expect to see and hear him as they never had before. —Adelle Platon
Daps to: VIBE.com