Ryan Leslie Sings Less, Raps on New Album, ‘Les Is More’
Following the release of his successful sophomore album, ‘Transition,’ Ryan Leslie
walked away from his contract with Universal Motown to pursue an independent release. Since then the singer-songwriter-producer, and now rapper, has not looked back.
Two weeks after the label split, Leslie wrote, produced and released ‘Glory,’ the first
single from his third album, ‘Les Is More,’ which finds him rapping instead of singing
R&B tunes. A European tour followed that, as well as his first performance at the
Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival this year — a specific goal he wanted to accomplish due to the lack of R&B performers usually invited to stadium shows.
Leslie, who has produced tracks for artists like Ne-Yo and recently, the remix to
Fabolous’ ‘You Be Killin’ Em,’ has also enjoyed the freedom to create music on his
own terms, citing his single ‘Joan of Arc’ as an example. “I went into the studio; wrote,
produced, recorded that song and released it that same night,” he explains. “To have
that artistic freedom is just amazing.”
This summer, following the official July 4 release of ‘Les Is More,’ Leslie will
once again take the stage in front of expansive crowds at Lollapalooza, abroad
in Zurich, Switzerland and at Central Park’s SummerStage concert series. And
between performances, the 32-year-old entrepreneur will invest serious time into his
NextSelection brand. Read on as R. Les speaks on his new business model, questions newcomers Frank Ocean and the Weeknd and embraces his rap side.
How did the split from Universal change the scope of the past year,
The real difference is that I didn’t have a “big brother,” in terms of a distribution
company, looking over my shoulder at every move that I made. From a business
standpoint, obviously there’s a huge difference when you’re self funded — that means
that every single dollar is coming out of your bank account. You’re looking a lot closer
at the financial health of your business, as an artist. Fortunately for me, I’m a pretty
successful producer with a lucrative publishing business, the proceeds of which I used to fund the ‘Les Is More’ album.
Did that result in an entirely different body of work from albums like ‘Transition’
and ‘Ryan Leslie?’
It’s a rap album so it’s markedly different from the other two and many people think it’s
a risky move. Here’s a guy coming off a Grammy-nominated contemporary R&B album,
deciding that he wants to exercise his creative and artist license to make a rap album. I
would venture to say that my former distribution company might not have supported
that decision. But since it’s now my own independent venture, I’m able to do any and
everything that I want to do. That includes releasing records on the same day as I write
them, which is what I did with ‘Joan of Arc’ on March 16.
There’s great storytelling on ‘Joan of Arc.’ Why did you include the
voicemail at the end?
The voicemail was what inspired the record, because I was going through a pretty
tumultuous situation and that was really the icing on the cake. I literally woke up and
for the first time in my life was being confronted by the NYPD. I was in the studio
with Ne-Yo all week and I woke up that morning, made a call and asked if I could go
into the studio a couple of hours early to get something off my chest. I went in, wrote,
produced, recorded and released that song the same night. To have that type of artistic
freedom — to write about something that was going on that week and have the freedom
of distribution — is just amazing. And for it to end up on the radar of USA Today and
Entertainment Weekly is a real testament to the new landscape of the music business
Since you branch out into rapping on this album, was producing it more of a
I produced the entire album and I don’t know if it’s any different for me, whether I’m singing or rapping. In my very first single that broke the charts, ‘Diamond Girl,’ the opening line is, “They try to put me in a box, it’s impossible.” I never want to be boxed into categories, like, “Hey, this is an R&B guy,” or “Here’s a producer trying to be an artist” or “Here’s a piano and synth guy trying to make R&B records.” It’s just really about art and creative expression, so the process hasn’t changed at all. I’m just delivering the message in rap form.
You fulfilled your desire to perform at Coachella this year. Was that a big
I had an amazing run this past year. I did a European tour in the fall — a lot of that
footage made it into the ‘Glory’ video — and with a huge response to the new music, we
also did Coachella. Upcoming, I’m booked at Lollapalooza and I’m doing a festival in
Zurich, Switzerland in July. For any young artist that says, “Man, I wanna get a VMA
or Grammy,” it’s a testament to the fact that when you put a desire into the universe,
that you really work hard to achieve, it’s within reach. Not that I’ve put a lot of weight
on awards and accolades but they do serve as amazing milestones to landmark your
career. I opened Coachella on Sunday, the last day, and we just rocked out. It was very
comfortable for me just because I’ve been touring and organizing my own tours in
Europe, with my internal team since 2004. So if by 2011, I can’t get on the Coachella
stage and rock out, then I probably shouldn’t be doing this. This is just what I absolutely
love to do.
Considering the popularity of acts like Frank Ocean and The Weeknd,
do you think that R&B artists will secure more chances for festival
It just comes down to the lineup at those festivals. Do you have stadium status music?
Do you have performances that are thrilling, exciting and exhilarating? With Frank Ocean being part of Odd Future, he made it to Coachella. But you look at someone with the success of Ne-Yo and Trey Songz — both of them having three to 10 times as many Twitter followers as I’ve got — and they’re not invited to be on those stages in front of 100,000 people. I want to break down those barriers. The landscape is changing, thanks to artists like myself who have the passion to say, “Hey, we want to be able to present on those stages too.” Artists like the Weeknd and Frank Ocean, I hope they’re working toward creating that explosive performance. What are they offering in that live experience that makes them unforgettable and sets them apart from everyone else? That’s what I try to do in my live performance element. Is there an emotive quality there which connects with an audience?
When you lost the masters for ‘Les Is More’ on your stolen laptop last year,
did you consider trying to re-record the entire thing?
I would never try to do something exactly the way I’ve done it before. I would want to
improve upon it and pick the seams that are strongest. I look at life this way: There’s
a reason for everything, so if those masters were really completely gone, that which I
remembered and was inspired by, would be the foundation for some new recordings,
which would be exponentially more engaging and exciting and amazing.
Most people would have been pretty devastated and might have considered
giving up for awhile.
I look at my life and I think to myself-I’m in such an amazing position because I have
put in the work to be able to live the American Dream, which is getting paid for what
I’m passionate about. So after any snafu, setback, stolen laptop, hard drive crash or bad
show, I have the ability to wake up the next day, go in the studio and potentially write
the record that could change mine or someone else’s life. It’s an amazing position to be
As an independent artist, are you always on the lookout for possible
We’re working on upcoming promotions but I’m being very specific about what
messaging I want to convey creatively. We’ve already shot three videos for this album: ‘Beautiful Lie,’ ‘Maybachs & Diamonds’ and ‘Dress You To Undress You.’ We’re looking
at a fourth and a fifth and for ‘Joan of Arc’ and ‘Breathe.’ This album is just as much a
visual presentation as it is a musical one, so we want to find partners that are aligned
with the brand messaging and visual roll out. I’m even toying with the idea of a feature-length film that we could do potentially with MTV. There’s any number of marketing
collaborations that could happen, but I’m really focused on the creative message. I’ll
take that creative message, present it to brands and see who would be best suited to align with it, from a messaging standpoint.
You’ve long-stressed the importance of social-digital media. Have you had
any developments in the past year?
We launched NextSelection, which is a consulting group for creative initiatives. This
is an amazing time because an artist can now look at themselves as a personal brand.
They need to really be engaged in the same behaviors, activities and business practices
as any other brand, whether it’s Coca Cola or Starbucks. At NextSelection, we’ve been
taking the best practices from some of the biggest brands in the world and toying with
this idea of “owned audiences.” That means you can create an audience of even just a
thousand loyal fans who will spend $100 bucks a year with you, and then you’re doing
double the median income of an average family of four in the U.S. It’s a platform and business paradigm for an artist.
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.
–Written by Nadeska Alexis