There was a time when Ryan Leslie seemed poised to take over R&B. The Ivy League prodigy (he graduated from Harvard at 19 and had a perfect SAT score) spent the mid-to-late 2000s producing and writing songs for legends like LL COOL J, Fabolous, New Edition and Mary J. Blige, among others. He scored a chart topper with Cassie‘s introductory 2006 single, “Me & U.”

After label execs struggled to see his potential as a talent in front of the boards, shelving his first album, Just Right, in 2005, Leslie persisted and announced himself as a solo star with his critically acclaimed self-titled official debut album and Grammy-nominated follow-up, Transition, both released in 2009.

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Ryan Leslie’s up-tempo production style, a knack for penning earworm hooks and warm vocals proved a winning combination. But then the multi-hyphenate quadruple threat (singer, rapper, producer, songwriter) abruptly abandoned his seemingly preordained trajectory. He launched a media company, a direct-to-fans SMS service, and an investment and trading club.

Leslie didn’t completely stop releasing music. There was his rap project Les Is More and two self-released albums, Black Mozart in 2013 and MZRT in 2015. While the former had some solid moments, the latter two projects paled in comparison to his earlier works and felt like the final salvos for Leslie the musician. It was Leslie the prodigious Harvard graduate’s time to shine.

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For fans of Ryan Leslie’s early work, his new comeback album, You Know My Speed, is a welcome surprise. The opening track and lead single, “Run It Back,” reintroduces Les like he never left. One thing is immediately apparent: after years of embracing his rapper side, Leslie is back to singing. In what could double as an entreaty to his fanbase, Leslie croons: “I never meant to do you like that/ Maybe we should run it back,” over a beat built on ringtone blips and crisp drums.

Leslie’s strengths as a singer-producer have always struck a balance between The-Dream‘s electro-soul and more traditionalist R&B vocals, like Usher with less range. You Know My Speed is at its best when Leslie sticks to this tried and true formula. Tracks like “This Love Thing” and “Falling Hard” don’t break any new ground, but they’re catchy and sleekly produced, familiar without feeling stale. Though R&B has evolved since his departure, Leslie doesn’t sound dated, perhaps because he helped set the genre on the path that led it to its current incarnation.

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Midway through the album is “All the Ways,” a clear standout and the project’s apex. The beat encapsulates Leslie’s strengths as a producer: bright synth melodies, pulsating drums and nostalgic keys on the backend. His smooth vocals pleasantly glide atop the beat without overpowering it, his lyrics simple and sweet: “I’m lovin’ all the ways, I love all the ways about you.” Tracks like this are an echo from an alternative timeline where Leslie became a household name due to his multi-faceted talent and effortless, bookish cool.

Unfortunately, the album stumbles at times due to a habit that Ryan Leslie can’t seem to shake: rapping. While Leslie is an undeniably gifted songwriter — see the three singles from his overlooked debut album — less is indeed more when it comes to his bars. His scene-stealing guest verse on Kanye West‘s G.O.O.D. Fridays loosie “Christian Dior Denim Flow” aside, Leslie raps in two primary modes: entrepreneurial manifestation and stunting. “Love when thеy bring the beast out of me/ That’s when I pull up and stunt/ They know I worked hard, got my dollars up, now I do it what I want,” he blandly spits on the lifeless title track.

Cassie Plotting Comeback Tour After Diddy Lawsuit Settlement, Says Ryan Leslie

Cassie Plotting Comeback Tour After Diddy Lawsuit Settlement, Says Ryan Leslie

Across the album, there are several times where Leslie deflates the momentum with an uninspired 16 that toggles between crypto bro (“Holdin’ crypto got me cashless“) and international jet-setter (“First class, sip the Henn’ on schedule, we got PJ’s/ We straight, skippin’ classes on the weekdays“). Whether Leslie is investing in Bitcoin or blowing bands on his latest love interest, his raps should have been buried with 2015’s supposed retirement album, MZRT.

Despite obviously being able to sing very well, Leslie’s vocal limitations rear their head when paired with more downtempo and mellow production. Droning synths and a standard 808 backdrop highlight an uninspired hook on “Put It in the Air,” with Leslie repeating the track’s title over and over again. The closing track “Sounds” – a baffling inclusion given that it also appeared on MZRT nine years ago – coasts on soft guitars and Bobby V‘s wordless coos. “Falling Hard” is a successful counterpoint. With the album’s strongest vocal performance, Leslie proves his pipes haven’t rusted over nearly 10 years of musical inactivity — not including his four-track 2019 EP, Fleurier Flows.

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The Ryan Leslie R&B renaissance never quite came to fruition, despite his initial promise at the turn of the decade. Drake quickly took over the singer-rapper lane, Frank Ocean propelled the genre forward with brilliant songwriting and bold production, and SZA took R&B minimalism to new heights. Still, Leslie’s return to music is welcome, and You Know My Speed mostly manages to maintain his unique sound without cribbing recent trends or pleading for radio play.

RELEASE DATE: February 2, 2024

RECORD LABEL: Black Phoenix Enterprises

Listen to You Know My Speed below: