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On Ryan Leslie’s “Christian Dior Denim Flow” Verse…


Late last week, Kanye released “So Appalled,” and tucked inside of that doomy, gloomy beat is the melody to Leslie’s “Addicted.” You really hear it at the beginning of Jay-Z’s verse. Kanye kinda repurposed it as this triumphant but sad, very 8-bit sounding thing, which totally works, but also made me just want to listen to “Addicted” as soon as possible, you know? A few days later, my local radio station played a Ryan Leslie mini-medley (“Addicted,” “Diamond Girl” into um, G-Unit’s “Bottom Girl”) and I’d like to think Kanye’s quasi-quote from “Addicted” reminded the hits station DJ of this 2008 minor hit, because you know, why else would he play songs from like, forever ago? That’s Ryan Leslie’s Top 40 reputation right now: Pretty much non-existent unless some DJ sticks a few personal picks into on an otherwise, Clear Channel-approved playlist.

This week, Ryan Leslie actually takes part in “G.O.O.D Music Friday” along with John Legend, Pusha T, Lloyd Banks, and Kid Cudi on “Christian Dior Denim Flow.” Of course, everybody’s third or fourth favorite nerdy R & B production genius is the most interesting part of the song. In part, he’s interesting because overall, the song is kinda whatever, but mostly because Leslie raps about as well as Diddy and has the same stuffed-nose delivery as early Common and that is a very awesome and memorable combination. He’s also hitting all the things that make Ryan Leslie so fascinating and emphatically not a superstar. He’s doing his morally serious nice-guy schtick here, breaking down some bad bitch at a club or wherever, but not as a hater, but like a concerned, wizened dad or something: “Man, I can see the flaws through your flavor/Look like Wonder Woman and still need a savior.” That’s very clever and pretty vicious.

From there, R. Les is in lecture mode (“I done seen drugs and money run the whole game”) and his half-raps interact really well with Kanye’s brooding strings, and it comes off like a guy genuinely bummed-out about this kind of stuff no matter how many times he sees it. Like, he’s not yet numb to it all like Kanye, and he isn’t comfortable bemoaning it but still sticking his dick in it like Drake or Kid Cudi, so it’s just a shady, messy scene he doesn’t want to be a part of. Then, the verse totally loses steam (appropriately, around the time he says “titties”) but you know, it’s Ryan Leslie and whether he means to or not, he injects something a little too sincere and heart-on-the-sleeve to whatever he does and that’s enough. One of the sub-sub-sub delights of these “Good Friday” songs is that simple: an answer to the question, who’ll show up and how?

Written by Brandon

October 4th, 2010 at 7:42 am

Return of Session/Producer Weirdos!

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A couple random pop music snapshots from the past few years: Timbaland beefing with the guy who used help him make beats on a lumpy victory lap kinda hit. Kanye parlaying soul-beat success into backpacker pop into icy auto-tune warble hits. Mariah Carey singing goofball lines about “bathing in windex” so clearly from the pen of the The-Dream.

Though the ascent of producers and songwriters to all-out artists isn’t anything new, this often awkward advancement dominates hip-hop and R & B in “the ‘aughts”. Timbaland. Kanye West. The-Dream. Ne-Yo. Keri Hilson. Even the explosion of DJ culture and the cult of Dilla and indie label careers of Alchemist or Black Milk owe to this trend gone a little crazy. It’s the reason why a lot of music is so strange and form-stretching and it’s why it’s so weird and messy too. Sometimes, the radio sounds like the inmates are running the asylum. Because they kinda are.

The behind-the-scenes to the stage trend speaks to a bunch of shifts this decade, but namely the everybody’s-a-star, post-reality show blah blah blah and the still confusing way that rap and R & B’s increased mainstreaming runs parallel to it’s idiosyncracies, porous borders, experimentation, etc. No doubt, this personalization of any and everything and the rarefication of a pop sound slam into one another in a ton of interesting ways, but like so many of the bizarro mergers and odd alliances of the decade, the “little guy”, the actual weirdo, is pushed to the side. Not entirely pushed to the side and indeed, the internet and indie labels have adjusted expectations in some really cool ways, but well, there’s a couple of interesting people that get to do everything and a lot of dudes that get lost in the mix.

For every, 808s & Heartbreak, there’s a whole bunch of Mannie Fresh’s Return of the Ballin’ type records: Rolled out onto iTunes, eventually comes out on CD, and has no promotion. Something like 88 Keys’ Death of Adam at one time, could’ve been “that weird record by the guy who produced “Thieves in the Night” but instead it was a three-years in-the-making, hyped-on-mixtapes, had a pre-mixtape-teaser-even record that was too weird and not poppy enough. There’d be more things like Cody Chesnutt’s Headphone Masterpiece if the stakes were just a lower.

Yeah, this is dipped in nostalgia but there’s something exciting about stuff like Eddie Hazel’s Games, Dames, and Guitar Thangs or the records from Lee Hazlewood producer Billy Strange sitting in a bin of 25 Cent records. Or a Memphis Horns record. Or the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra. These one-off things a label conceded to putting-out or handed over some studio time for because hey, the people behind the hits deserved that much. Now, a label gives dudes a real budget, a P.R push, and facilitates some hit records which yeah, is surely preferable to the chance of making a weird, “personal” record but isn’t so good for longevity or anything like that.

What stirred this all up though, is a few recent releases: Dam-Funk’s Toeachizown, Ryan Leslie’s Transition, and Mannie Fresh’s Return of the Ballin, out now on iTunes, 11/17 physical). All three of these records are excellent and all of them give off the same feeling as some random-ass Billy Strange LP: A little too weird, a little too disinterested in catching a lot of listeners…jumbled, slabs of indulgence. And they gain their strength from this sensibility, they aren’t weary listens and they don’t fall back on the crutch of mega-popular artist’s “experimental” album–there’s something more being worked-out here.

You hear it in the all-over-the-place emotions of Ryan Leslie’s new one–really, if you listen to the lyrics, the guy’s a mess, obviously “a love addict” maybe a Co-Dependant–and you hear it in the underlying sadness of Fresh’s “Like a Boss” or that coat of tinny vocoder on “Go Girl” and just pick up Dam’s Toeachizown–it’s over two hours of wash-over-you synth work. Steeped in the past but not aggressively “vintage” or anything, it’s just Dam, free of the SOLAR Records studio or a Westside Connection sample-avoiding recording session. I could go on, highlighting a dozen more tiny details that make these records so fascinating, but the appeal here is how each of these will touch a listener totally differently; every song’s a “hit” and none of them are. They’re full of frayed edges and bubbling over with personality and shit just doesn’t sound like this all that much anymore. Records that sound like the inside of the musician’s mind.

This isn’t to bemoan the current music landscape, though it’s spitting out talents left and right all the time–like the economy, the free-market-ism hitting a critical mass to where only the super-successful have the right to do much of anything–it’s just to point out that how music works right now (not enough pop stars, all the behind the scenes people want to and will get a chance to be pop stars and’ll fail) doesn’t allow for the kind of organic, slow-rolling weirdo creativity music behind-the-scenes-ers could once indulge in from time to time–and sometimes, they’d still make a hit.

further reading/viewing:

-”Rising: Dam-Funk” from Pitchfork
-Al Shipley talking about the new Mariah
-Billy Strange Conducts Sinatra
-Richard Rorty on “the free market” from Take Care of Freedom…

Written by Brandon

November 9th, 2009 at 6:12 pm

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