There’s something about Ryan Leslie; it’s the impeccable style and savoir-faire, the manner in which he walks the fine line between self-assuredness and vulnerability that makes the ladies swoon. The seemingly effortless mastery of the production process evidenced in his frequent YouTube videos – many of which have racked up well over a million views. The unparalleled way he retains a sense of accessibility to his fan base – going as far as showing up at a Twitter follower’s house in his Lamborghini, whisking them off to a recording session. And now with the release of his third solo album, the decidedly rap-influenced Les Is More, Ryan Leslie aims to up the ante by positioning himself as both an independent artist and a smooth rhyme sayer. We recently chopped it up with R. Les about his departure from Universal Motown, the visual album concept of Les Is More, and the reason behind his rhymes.
OKP: How is your new album Les Is More a departure from your debut and sophomore efforts?
RL: In my mind, it’s really not a departure at all. Both Transitions and my self-titled album were written from a place of honesty. They were both a reflection of the experiences I was having in life at the time. This album is absolutely no different. It’s always interesting to have to describe my art. It’s like when you make a meal and having someone ask, “What’s it going to taste like?” You can talk about the spices and the process of cooking it. But at the end of the day, it’s really going to be about having someone taste it for themselves. If we were to talk about how my life experiences were different on this record and how they affected your lyrics, then I can actually speak to that. Because there’s actually something quantifiable, in that regard. But if you ask, “Why did you use more guitar” – that’s just how I felt. That’s what the expression called for. I’ve had an incredible collection of experiences that have inspired this album: touring overseas, falling in and out and in love, going through terrible breaks in relationships that I invested so much time and energy in. The more obvious difference with this album is that it’s a rap album.
OKP: What were the initial responses from people when they heard you were switching lanes?
RL: The response from lots of folks when I tell them that has been one of surprise, shock, disbelief, disdain (laughs). People saying that I shouldn’t be going in this direction, being that I just came off a Grammy-nominated album. As artists, we should always be going in the direction of honesty. That’s how I feel and that’s where I have to go. There’s nowhere else for me to go. I would say that if you look at how much of the Billboard chart is set aside for our music, it’s all lumped in together. It’s a hip-hop/ R&B chart. So, I don’t know if it’s really a departure – other than I’m just rapping more.
OKP: You mentioned previously that your experiences dropping in on some of the sessions for Kanye West and Jay-Z’s lauded collaboration album Watch The Throne were part of the inspiration for Les Is More. Can you elaborate on that?
RL: I just looked at it as the best internship that I could possibly get at my level. I’m a producer. So many times people come to me and say, “What should I do?” So for me to actually go into a session and be looking around at what I should do – just because of the level of accomplishment and cultural contribution that these guys have made – that was an amazing experience. Just to be there, watching their workflow, to watch how their teams move, to watch how their collaborative process works, to look at the creative process, the hours, the time, work ethic, and focus that is invested in every aspect of the art. Not just the making of each instrumental layer that makes up the track or each vocal layer that makes up the vocal performance. But also the ideas that swirl around with regards to the visuals as well. Also just the company of creatives. If you caught the VOYR video series, you got to see the people that were coming by to visit the sessions. From Spike Lee to Chris Rock to Jared Leto. It was creation, inspiration, and collaboration on a level that far exceeds anything that I have had the opportunity to participate in. That’s really what I took away from that experience. And from the first hand observation of one of the most monumental albums in hip-hop history being made came the forging of collaborative relationships with the likes of Raekwon, Young Jeezy, Jay Electronica. Also, the continued collaboration with artists like Fabolous. And releasing a single with Red Café and Rick Ross. These are all experiences that have shaped this record. When you look at the names that I’ve just mentioned, you look at what they’ve contributed to the art form. I think that you’ll be able to listen to my album and hear the inspiration that these artists have provided.
OKP: Your YouTube channel has done an impeccable job of cementing the Ryan Leslie brand by showcasing the idea of the very urbane, jetsetting, yet disciplined and multi-talented artist. How are you expanding on that with the visual album concept of Les Is More?
RL: Putting these videos together, I really wanted them to come from a place of reality – because I went independent. A lot of the video ideas that I have, some of which will be included on the next record that I’m planning to release in March of 2013, the budget for the creative was in the hundreds of thousands per video. For this record, because everything was really so personal and based on the life that I actually lead every single day, I just wanted to put out the footage that we were capturing as I was traveling around the world. I directed and edited everything. In directing my real life, I had to remember to slow down a bit so that whoever was with me could capture those moments. Then we could put them into records. Each one of the videos is almost a literal interpretation of the lyrics. But that’s because the visuals are what actually inspired the lyrics. By the visuals, I mean what I was experiencing and taking in as I was writing those records. I was fortunate enough to have a very dedicated team of young people who had no problem capturing everything as it unfolded. I was then able to cut those moments into the music videos. On iTunes, there are seven music videos, the live performance videos and the studio sessions bundled with the album.
OKP: In a decision that quite possibly shocked and perplexed many in the industry, you initiated a split with your record company Universal Motown after the release of your sophomore album. Being that the dream of many artists is to be a part of the major label system, what instigated your desire for a departure?
RL: There are as many unique pathways as there are success stories in the world. Each pathway correlates with the respective success story. What success represents for me is the ability for me to create in an unrestricted manner. To be able to have an unfiltered dialogue with my audience. I just found that with regard to budgets, spending, and creative ideas I had while I was at Universal, [the label] had to be cognizant of commerce. For me, the only thing that really matters is the artistic statement. So when I would sit down and talk to the executives about my video concepts – about traveling to different parts of the world and shooting videos with multi-layered plot lines – in many cases, it was met with an immediate veto. Mostly because of the costs associated traveling with a camera crew and mounting productions in various countries. They’d say, “Yo, Ryan man. Look at your sales. Look at the number of units you’re moving. How do you expect us to justify that investment in your art? From an accounting standpoint, your art doesn’t merit that kind of investment because we’re not going to get a return.” I understood where they were coming from. But for me, I would invest everything into my art. So I believe it was just a disconnect in terms of approach. A window of opportunity came when I was renegotiating for my final [album] release. They wanted to turn my deal into a 360 deal.
OKP: But aren’t 360 deals more common in the industry these days?