Visual gimmicks have always been instrumental in pushing artists to superstardom, and the last few years have been no different. Danity Kane earned their stripes on the Making The Band television series, and Jennifer Hudson's career jumped off after becoming a finalist on American Idol. Producer/songwriter/singer Ryan Leslie [click to read] has built his reputation differently, though: on his YouTube page, he has videos of him in the studio putting together most of his songs from scratch. He lays vocals, orders instruments for immediate delivery, and creates backdrops, bit by bit--all on camera. His liveliness and his talent in said videos has helped build him up as an identifiable figure, but music fans and industry heads have known Leslie for a while now due to his work with everyone from Britney Spears and Beyonce to various Bad Boy Records artists like Carl Thomas and Mario Winans. Thankfully, Leslie's self-titled debut lives up to the hype of his buzz.
The strongest asset of his Ryan Leslie's multi-faceted repertoire is his production skills. As a multi-instrumentalist who's worked with the likes of Britney Spears, Beyonce, Carl Thomas and others, Leslie is, quite simply, a producer who knows who music is supposed to sound. He utilizes heavy synths to craft catchy, modernized backdrops that should be digestible amongst Pop, R&B and Rap fans alike. Considering he uses synths so much here, he accomplishes a commendable array of sounds for different songs: the Cassie [click to read] and Fabolous-assisted [click to read] "Addiction" [click to listen] is built for club with its stabs and thumping bassline, while "Out of the Blue" slows things down for a scornful critique of a cold-hearted ex. Even though he's a dual-threat with singing and writing talents, he shows the most showmanship in his production: "Quicksand" and "I-R-I-N-A" display elaborate, crafty change-ups within the last minute or so of each song. "Gibberish" has unintelligible lyrics, but the silky combo of the aforementioned synths and pianos and commendably shrewd use of the auto-tune make it an album highlight regardless.
Even though the production is undeniably fresh for the times, the disc also has an aura that harkens to R&B from earlier times. Leslie isn't the most gifted singer: he can competently hold a note, but he lacks the distinctive, bellowing voices that powerhouses like Usher [click to read] and John Legend have. And his songwriting doesn't feel as complex as that of Ne-Yo [click to read] or Donell Jones. But his sincerity--both in the lyrics themselves, and for his love in music--admittedly makes the music enjoyable. That's not to say that his talents don't do any work: "Valentine" is a mushy-yet-effective slow jam ("I don't have to say you stole my heart, 'cause anything I have I freely give to you/and I knew right from the very start, that the only place I belong is next to you") that's sure to make its rounds this Hallmark holiday weekend, and the aforementioned "Out of the Blue" is surprisingly emotive. Otherwise, the songwriting and Ryan Leslie's voice are more competent than they are next level, but their digestibility makes the disc a satisfying, if not a moving, listen.
While hearing songs after seeing their assemblage on YouTube may make them more enjoyable for some, other loyal viewers may not like such familiarity--especially for songs like "Addiction" and "Diamond Girl," which have already run their course through radio and Internet. And for some, the je na sais quoi of Ryan Leslie as a showman may not translate to the music itself. Regardless, Leslie's self-titled debut is a telling indication of what he's capable of, and it's good to see that the content of those YouTube videos is actually being released.