Ryan Leslie is a genius. Not just because he got a perfect 1600 on his SATs at the tender age of 15 or because he graduated from Harvard University at 19, but also because of his foresight into the future of music. In 2005, Leslie served as svengali to hip hop's first Internet star, Cassie, creating a buzz on MySpace without major label backing or radio, eventually helping Cassie’s “Me & U” reach number three on the Billboard Hot 100. So, it’s no surprise that the man who has always courted his fan base online — Leslie was also one of the first artists to do daily video blogs — would create a completely digital sensory experience for his audience.
On Wednesday, the singer-songwriter, musical arranger and producer began the official rollout of a visual album release for his third LP, Les is More. The first single, “Beautiful Lie,” is already up and ready for download along with its prequel from this summer, “Glory”, which has already garnered one million views. And beginning on Christmas day, fans will be able to download a mobile app suitable for every Web platform on the market from RyanLeslie.com, that will continuously populate with both music and video content. Each song will feature footage from the in-studio recording session as well as what Leslie calls “music cinema,” showcasing Leslie’s life and travels around the globe. He says, “this album is inspired by real events, real experiences, real travels and real relationships. You’ll be able to be on a journey with me as I create, travel and am inspired by these different places.” So, read on for a glimpse into the mind of the man that may hold the key to the future of music media.
BET.com: What inspired the idea of creating a visual experience for your audience?
Ryan Leslie: Well, I have always been very interested in emerging technology and very interested in how the affordability of technology impacts an artist’s ability to create. We’re able to interact and engage with media on such a heightened level thanks to modern technology. And as an artist that really appreciates the tools that I have, I’m creative and I want to be able to use all the tools and that includes filmmaking. Since 2005, I’ve been recording my life and I wanted to find a way that I could add a layer to my artistic expression beyond just the music.
You were really at the forefront on how artists can use social media as a marketing tool. How’d you know this was the way of the future?
It was intuitive in the sense that it’s what we do all the time. With Facebook, it’s a much tighter audience, much more close, it’s our friends, family, loved ones. I think the actual responsibility of the artists is to create an audience of as many “loved ones” as you can. And in order to create that relationship you have to share. Early on, I thought to myself, this is where the world is going and from what I saw, I just predicted that stars would be born out of this exchange and it just came down to who would actually have the guts to engage with their audience in a way that was entertaining as well as informative. And that’s what this album is, it is a stream, very much in the way that Twitter is a stream or a Facebook timeline is a stream. It is a stream of inspiration, experience and eventually the execution of taking a vision from something that is dreamed and imagined to something that is captured, recorded and immortalized.
Very interesting. So how exactly will you engage fans with this latest offering?
We want to give each record some time for people to digest it and let it marinate and let it become the soundtrack for great moments or sad moments or important moments in people’s lives. If I give people a new record every day it doesn’t give them time to actually fall in love with the record. So, once we deploy the album framework on Christmas, it will tell subscribers, “you’ve now downloaded the complete Les Is More visual album. You’ll be able to listen to the music if that’s all you want to do, you can download all of the videos or stream them over the 3G network.
Any features or collaborations on the project?
I recorded with French rapper Booba on the remix of “Swiss Francs” and I have a song with Mr. Hudson called “Breathe.” As for other features, if someone reaches out, man, I would love to pull them in. This is an invitation. If people really want to be part of something that’s going to be groundbreaking and eyebrow-raising, I would love to collaborate. I’m absolutely open, willing and excited about collaborating. I’ve worked with so many of my favorite artists already as a producer and would love to bring some of their magic and artistry to this project.
You’re rapping on most of the album, what made you want to go more into hip hop rather than R&B, which you’re most known for?
I literally spent two or three months out of the last year in the studio with Kanye West and Jay Z. I didn’t end up on the album but I had some amazing conversations and experiences and gained some amazing insights before I decided to make a rap album. I wanted to know how best to do it and not just studying it on record by listening, but actually taking advantage of the opportunity and the invitation I had to be a fly on the wall in those recording sessions and say, “How can I, Ryan Leslie, provide an even greater artistic offering based on everything that I know.” And so, this is it, this is the kickoff.
Well, it seems you’ve been able to take your creativity to the next level. How does it feel to do this without the constraints but also without the financial backing of a major label?
I can’t tell you how excited I am — to be able to have the freedom to do this outside the structure of a major label framework and to have been fiscally responsible enough that outside of a label, I was able to underwrite this. Being fiscally responsible and making great investments in the past so that I have a war chest to invest in myself and my art it’s just, I think it is so amazing and so awesome. I really feel it’s my responsibility to provide an alternative pathway to success than what may be currently presented.
And what do you say to naysayers?
By all accounts I’m not oblivious to prior sales, prior chart positions, I’m not oblivious to even what public perception may be of my relevance. But I believe that in doing what I am doing and in the ability that I’ve had to make a great living with what I am doing it provides an alternative to the pathway to success, which is so often glorified, especially in rap music. So for me to actually feature one girl in my video series, for example — we’re not down in Miami, we’re not in the strip club, not that there’s anything wrong with that but I’m just saying providing an alternative pathway to really living good and how to get there. Fiscal responsibility, education hardwork, attention and passion and perseverance toward being the best craftsman you can be.
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