Ryan Leslie

Ryan Leslie

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The release date and presentation made Ryan Leslie's self-titled album seem somewhat anticlimactic. When it came out, Cassie's mainstream blitz, engineered in many ways by the always visible Leslie, was two and a half years in the past, and a pair of lead-up singles had already fallen off the charts, released up to just over a year prior to the final product. Ryan Leslie came out in February 2009 with strikingly low-profile presentation: a simple black-and-white cover shot and a no-frills booklet with track credits and nothing else, not necessarily what was expected from a flashy and shrewd self-promoter who hired a staff of videographers to document his moves for a well-stocked archive of YouTube clips. And the album did, indeed, nearly shoot its wad before it became a physical object. Those first two singles, "Diamond Girl" and "Addiction" (neither of which cracked the Top 30 of the R&B/Hip-Hop chart), are the best of the set, easily the standouts. Instrumentally all synth trills, fillips, and bullfrog croaks, with charmingly clownish boasts on top, "Diamond Girl" also leads off the album, and it is followed by "Addiction," a crafty post-Neptunes production rooted in a barely present kick-drum pattern and synthetic hand percussion patter, ribboned in wavering (and practically queasy) synth flossing. What follows is not a series of radio killers but plenty of depth warranting repeat plays, led by "Quicksand," featuring Neptunes/N.E.R.D accessory Brent Paschke on guitar and bass. It's a slick update of In Search Of…'s springy pop-R&B (a la the album's original mix), one with a clever breakdown where the song slips abruptly into a swirl of synthesizers and Leslie's falsetto refrain. As a singer, Leslie is passable, slightly nasally, just skilled enough to pull off a falsetto without sounding silly; it's certainly the melodies and production flourishes, not the voice, that stick in the memory. And that is a blessing in disguise since the lyrics are sometimes flat-out clumsy. It could be that he was too busy with everything else and determined, after running some figures through a formula (he graduated from Harvard at the age of 19), that his creative energies could be optimized by spending more time on hooks and high-hat sounds. On five of the album's 12 songs, he plays and sings everything, while the others tend to involve no more than one additional musician (a not-exactly-heterogeneous crew including Hall & Oates and Saturday Night Live band alum T-Bone Wolk and fashion model slash rumored Leslie love interest Chanel Iman). Enjoyment of the album will be heightened if you are down with Leslie's brainiac schemer persona, but it is not a requirement. Bottom line: the album is one of the stronger pop-R&B releases of the last few years.

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