If it were 1985, Ryan Leslie would be the biggest star in soul music. However, it’s 2009, and the man, while so completely in tune with what is needed in music, is not quite yet in lock step motion with mainstream urban listeners. With his second release of 2009, the 51 minute, 11 track summer love affair concept album Transition, the sensitive and overachieving crooner continues to direct a career that resurrects the craftsmanship and personal vision lacking in a solid percentage of American rhythm and blues. Ryan Leslie’s earlier release of the year, Ryan Leslie, is an amazing body of work. Leslie’s knowledge and appreciation of synths and melodies recalls the Minnesota sound heyday of Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, as “Diamond Girl” and “Addiction” were instantaneous smashes if not for their lyrical content or guest cameos, but because of “R Les'” handling of crafting tracks that sound absolutely nothing like anything on urban radio. And that’s always been the point of his career, being a poised, primed, damn near perfect example of precisely what R & B could and should look and sound like. Perfecting his supposed perfection has been the lynchpin of his motivation, and his latest release succeeds in that aim.
Transition’s smash single is slated to be “You’re Not My Girl.” Mid tempo and radio ready, the song, seemingly culled from media rumblings over the last year about Leslie’s numerous romantic entanglements, has a backing track of 80s synths and harps creating a sliding groove that instantaneously pleases. If anything, the one concern about Leslie is that he’s seemingly perpetually all rhythm and no blues, all heart and no soul on his debut, which comes off as SO slickly produced and likable that you think the main is an automated soul machine, nearly too perfect for words. This concept even gets shrift on this album with perfect second single “Something That I Like” featuring Pusha T of The Clipse, a funky, bassline banger with those empty kickdrums that make this sound like it’s better suited for The Clipse forthcoming Til The Casket Drops, until you realize that the only thing Ryan Leslie is talking about is moving souls, and not pushing weight. As well on this album, Leslie actually raps as well, on tracks like “Nothing,” throwing 16 bars over a chorus, while not doing anything to advance his career in this realm, comes off like something done as mere creative exploration, art for art’s sake. The key to this album is that his development feels nearly effortless, as if even in the face of varying commercial norms, he’s self-assured of his own process here, taking a Minnesota by way of Detroit with hip hop visitations throughout tour to success.
But what separates this album and shows advancement in Leslie as an artist may be the piano and classic hip hop break filled love ballad “Guardian Angel.” The sparseness of the track, while not what Leslie is known for in the mainstream, really lets his emotional and lyrically evocative side free, as when he hits the chorus, with the lyrics “now I’m so overjoyed/girl you filled my void/and you’ve got a special place here/you put joy inside my tears,” Ryan Leslie lyrically and emotionally becomes a man as an artist on record. While likely not a single for release, it’s these moments on albums where an artist feels the desire to take a step away from the formula that defines their popularity, that often leads to the growth that certifies and forwards their career aspirations.
As a Harvard educated, overachieving singer/songwriter/producer who has label and production experience with all of the top stars in the game at such a very young age, Ryan Leslie likely should feel that there’s not much left for him to achieve as an artist except stardom. Finding the potent mix of his multitude of talents has become his cause celebre. In his career, which appears VERY bright indeed, we will be perpetually blessed with this musical genius attempting to blend his likes, interests, desires and feelings into phenomenal confections. While he often will miss, because his artistry is often too intricate, and anachronistic for average ears, he will, on occasion, because of his abundant talent encapsulate exactly what we want to hear, when we want to hear it.
Transition continues the path to self-realization and superstar wealth for Ryan Leslie. Unfortunately, as with all things, “the race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.” – Ecclesiastes 9:11.