[11 March 2009]
Ryan Leslie graduated from Harvard at the age of 19. He made a name for himself at the age of 27, when Cassie’s Leslie-produced “Me & U”—a song that’s all beat and no song—briefly ruled the world in the summer of 2006. If Leslie’s a name in any household, it’s surely due to that breathtaking beat, but, as good as it is, “Me & U”’s ice cold drip-drop belies Leslie’s full, warm sound as well as the realized brilliance of his self-titled American debut.
“Me & U” is good as a starting point for one thing, though: it showcases the way Leslie can pack a song with ideas without ever making it seem dense. “Me & U” is, at the surface, meant to produce instant pop and locks, and on that front it succeeds. But snaking beneath the unmistakable keyboard line are all types of unexpected sounds: a blurting synth horn, a whoosh and twinkle as the bridge enters and exits, drum beats that secretly switch up halfway through verses. It’s an absolute masterwork of minimalism, and it’s possible that Leslie’s inability to repeat its pop success isn’t because he had one good idea but because he has too many.
Ryan Leslie is decidedly more maximal than “Me & U”—as well as more formalist—and it deftly splits the difference between retro-R&B like Robin Thicke and the forward-thinking, club oriented R&B of The-Dream. In this regard, its not unlike Ne-Yo’s Year of the Gentleman, an album whose radio omnipresence has only been matched by its critical love. But where Year of the Gentleman compartmentalizes its songs—the radio-ready singles are obviously modern whereas the album tracks are almost uniformly retro—Ryan Leslie, the better singer-songwriter album, makes no distinction between the two.
Instead, its songs find a happy medium for both the full-band arrangements of R&B’s roots and the more contemporary turn towards thumping, rap-influenced productions. “I-R-I-N-A”’s retro vamping gets a jolt in the chorus from sinewy synths, and eventually its synth solo gives way to a surprisingly great hand-drum outro. Lead single “Diamond Girl”—a song whose video features a tuxedoed full band—struts like it belongs on stage at the Apollo, but its instrumentation, mostly just a whirling synth effect and alien burps, and its Leslie-rapped third verse are distinctly new-age. The song is like if James Brown were a wind-up toy.
As a singer, Leslie knows his limits. His voice has a narrow range, and aside from the occasional falsetto, he doesn’t push it needlessly. Where this might hamper some albums, Leslie’s limited vocal capabilities oddly help bolster this one. The pedestrian vocal performance allows his true strengths—in arrangement and melody—to be showcased without intrusion, and it’s a testament to his ability that the thrills run far deeper than surface level.
The album drags slightly where you expect it might—the second and third-to-last songs—but by then Leslie has already traversed enough territory: N.E.R.D.-ed out guitar-rush (“Quicksand”), lovesick piano ballad-cum-synth slow-burner (“Valentine”, featuring the album’s best hook), and prickly hip-hop&B (“How It Was Supposed to Be”, which would’ve been a hit if it was the lead single off of a Fabolous album).
He ends with his most left-field track, “Gibberish”. The song finds Leslie using AutoTune to turn his vocals into soup and to muddle his lyrics completely beyond recognition. The commentary—overtly placing the success of the song solely on the melody and arrangement—is if not slyly intentional, then ironically emblematic. Naturally, it’s the prettiest song on the album.