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He Shouldn’t Have To Wait: Ryan Leslie’s Album Is Great.


Ryan Leslie is not cool. He dances like Ian Curtis and he kind of looks like a camel. His production’s all fluttering electronics and house music sounds, but it’s weirdly understated and subtle too. His songs are all-out love songs for one very special girl or they’re wizened R & B dramas about regret and complex adult type stuff.

Even those few times when he enters into the girl-on-the-side bro-talk that’s taken over rap and R & B, Leslie flips it. “You’re Fly” begins with a half-rap about “friends with benefits” but soon enough the relationship’s real and Leslie’s talking about how she’s “the one”.

“Shouldn’t Have To Wait” is an answer track to all those songs that brag about side-girls, focusing on the ugly, emotional tug-of-war this kind of lothario loverman bullshit brings. Leslie sings the hook, voicing the girl’s frustration (“This is crazy, I shouldn’t have to wait”) and verses are Leslie the dude, exuding empathy, looking back at it all and realizing his stupidity: “Baby trust me, I know I’m not the one/To take good care of you…”

This all really great stuff and it makes Ryan Leslie the best release of the year, but it’s also why the album, as of this week, has only sold about 65,000 copies. Ryan Leslie’s really on some other shit. Half throwback loverman and half even-further-in-the-future than Kanye or The-Dream production genius, Leslie doesn’t fit in any of the hyper-corporatized categories.

“How It Was Supposed To Be” which seems to be getting some consistent airplay right now–let’s hope Leslie’s album slow-burns its way to popularity, it certainly can, there’s 8 or so singles on it for sure—is an even better example of his work than previous almost hit singles “Diamond Girl” and “Addiction”. Those songs stood-out as fairly direct love songs (an anomaly these days), but “How” puts Leslie in the very uncool position of the shocked and spurned boyfriend. And better yet, even as he’s rolling around with it, whining-out lines about “how it was supposed to be”, the music doesn’t sonically recreate his pathos a la 808s Kanye. People still dance, clubs are still open, the world (and pop radio) don’t stop because you’re sad and Leslie understands this.

Less interested in whipping-up gloom-and-doom soundscapes and just as bored with aping the retro-futurism that was fun a few years back, but’s been reduced to formula by Lady Gaga or Flor-rida, Leslie makes personal pop music, which means it knocks but sounds wonderfully rarefied too. In the best way possible, Leslie’s music isn’t cool or protected. He takes the 80s shit that’s everywhere a step further, neither ripping it off for irony or stripping it for parts, he’s wrestling with the bizarre craftsmanship and try anything-ness of 80s funk and R & B and succeeding.

The fact that Leslie’s album is released on Casablanca is just too damned perfect. What do you do with the extended Cameo-esque synth work-out that rolls-out at the end of “I-R-I-N-A”? It’s cathartic but it’s awesomely silly, which you know, is how most moments where we really let-go and get emotional are like.

“Quicksand” is tight funk guitars that sound a bit like the Neptunes and a lot like Maroon 5 and then tumble into the Vangelis zone on a genuinely and appropriately oppressive-sounding bridge, that lets-up for the hook once more and dives further into Blade Runner territory to the song’s end. “Valentine” twinkles like those lover-man R & B tracks Big Daddy Kane and Grandmaster Flash albums had on them for some reason, and Leslie grabs for a Prince register in the idealized verses, and comes back down to earth for the uh, down-to-earth hook: “I know you’re not my girlfriend/But I swear that I love you, baby I do”. It’s like “Look okay, I know I’m being weird and all but who cares, I love you!”. There’s even a few moments where Leslie stops singing altogether and speaks in a painfully sincere rasp “Valentine…be mine.”

For those that think Leslie can’t sing, you’re not entirely incorrect, but you’re missing out on the many ways Leslie exploits his voice (“Diamond Girl” ends with a very Wayne-like rap, he moans like Stevie on the bridge of “Addiction”, he raps like mixtape Kanye on the beginning of “You’re Fly”, He tries for Prince’s sincerity on “Valentine”, he’s Bobby Caldwell or maybe Bob Odenkirk as Larry Black on “Wanna Be Good” and even sneaks in some Al Green squeaks on that same song) in ways that if he could sing better, would just sound absurd or like, the wrong kind of absurd.

Pretty much every song on Ryan Leslie has this same sense of variety to it, as it bounces between “too-many” ideas. But it totally works. One gets the same kinda in-awe feeling listening to these quick pieces of pop as one does listening to something like Lindstrom—that music nerd confusion as to how all these disparate sounds (Why did a vocoder work right there so well? Did he sample the AIM sign-off sound on “Just Right”?) and rhythms layered atop one another makes any sense at all.

There are these Trevor Horn-like uh, horns that rise and fall through the background of album-closer “Gibberish” and further add to the weird feelings being worked-out in the song. “Gibberish” is a song about the goofball, baby-talk stuff two people in love do to one another when alone but would never take outside of their apartment, taken out of the apartment and placed on an album. That it’s also a pretty funny, slight parody of the way auto-tune turns all that’s crooned through it into well, gibberish is an added bonus.

“Out of the Blue” builds beeps and buzzes atop one another as an ugly drum thumps behind it all–as I said before, a hack like Polow Da Don would make five beats out of the abundance of sounds Leslie crams into a single track–and Leslie bounces between regretful “shoulda been”s and a hook that asks “What would you do if I left you out of the blue?” and you think it’s this cruel question that validates how bad his girl needs him, but it turns out, he’s transferring his own pain onto the girl: “Would you fight back tears as your heart gets torn to pieces?/Because that’s what you did when you/Left me out of the blue”. There’s an absurd melodrama to it, but it’s all sucked-up inside and contemplated, it’s not shit back out or buried by finding the nearest shorty and buying her a drank.

Musically, Ryan Leslie is subtly avant-garde and lyrically, the album’s actually honest. Leslie opens-up instead of lashing-out or just plain spitting game. When even many of my favorite R & B singers in 2009 sing a love song, it sounds like what they’re supposed to sing about, or what they say to place nice to lay one more girl, and when they’re too-cool for everything under the guise of “getting real” about love, it’s more the bro-like response we have in the moment in front of our friends.

Leslie’s songs wrestle with the feelings that’ll echo later or can’t be hidden for too long…the ones you’ll wake up to when your best buds aren’t around and you’re not full of Patron (or Pabst Blue Ribbon) and “man, fuck that bitch” makes way for “Yo, I kinda messed-up and it’s all ruined now”. And when they’re not that, they’re expressions of pure, “uncool” love. Ryan Leslie is the guy singing his his date’s order to the waiter at Cheesecake Factory. He’s your dumb-ass (and mine) saying “schmoopy” and making silly in-jokes with the girlfriend. He’s a goofball R & B singer too sincere and weirdly brilliant for his own good.

Written by Brandon

April 7th, 2009 at 8:16 am

Posted in Ryan Leslie

5 Responses to 'He Shouldn’t Have To Wait: Ryan Leslie’s Album Is Great.'

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