Ryan Leslie, Chasing Dreams of Electronic R& B Music Stardom

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By Chris Richards
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, February 19, 2009

NEW YORK -- For a musician who measures his worth in YouTube views, Ryan Leslie shouldn't care about a promotional poster wheat-pasted to a plywood fence in Harlem.

But he does. So much so that the irrepressible pop singer has parked his silver SUV in the middle of the street so he can hop out and capture this moment for his blog, camera-wielding intern in tow.

A Sharpie materializes, and Leslie scrawls his autograph on one of the weather-beaten placards advertising his self-titled U.S. debut album -- an exquisite swatch of electronic R&B that landed in stores last week. "I'll always remember this moment," the 30-year-old singer will later post on his Web site, the corresponding video clip capturing his bewildered smile as proof.

Only a few hours later, at Leslie's sleek Harlem condo, the endorphins have fizzled. "The president of my record label is not expecting to see the mother lode from the release of my album," he says, the words dripping almost painfully from his mouth. "At all. By any means."

Ryan Leslie is a should-be pop star chasing his dreams in the ruins of the record industry. He was signed to Universal in 2003, and it's taken him six long years to get an actual album in U.S. stores despite producing songs for Britney Spears and Danity Kane and landing a hit in 2006 with "Me & U," an icy club anthem written and produced for then-protege Cassie. Since then, the singer has spent most of his time online, aggressively promoting the songs his label didn't deem radio-worthy as a cast of Justin Timberlakes, John Legends and T-Pains passed him by.

For its part, Universal Motown says that it is solidly behind Leslie's new album. "When an artist is signed is not really relevant . . . what is relevant is the quality of the music that is ultimately delivered," says label spokeswoman Tracy Zamot. "And Ryan has delivered a fantastic album that everyone at Universal Motown is very excited about."

Still, as the music industry continues its slow-motion collapse, Leslie's dreams have been re-routed almost entirely to the Web. He's no longer trying to go platinum -- he's trying to go viral.

As one of the first R&B artists to fully embrace MySpace and YouTube, Leslie's been blogging his way to new eardrums with a ceaseless barrage of music and diary-style videos, winning fans in a niche, online popscape where success isn't measured in Grammys.

And the videos keep coming. The poster in Harlem plugged three singles from his new album, ("Diamond Girl," "Addiction," "How It Was Supposed to Be"), but Leslie has already made self-financed video clips for five.

"With the traditional model, there are major issues with releasing five tracks at the same time," the singer says from behind a pair of aviator sunglasses. "You're giving too much choice to the audience. But I don't really believe in the traditional model in 2009. It doesn't even make sense from my vantage point."

Leslie's slog to that vantage point has been anything but typical. Born in Washington, and raised by parents who worked for the Salvation Army, Leslie spent his youth moving from state to state. A precocious student, at 15 he was accepted into Harvard, where he studied government and economics, making music in his every spare moment. Not only did he graduate in the Class of 1998 -- he also gave the famous Harvard Oration at his commencement.

A move to New York brought an internship under Sean "Diddy" Combs and a record contract from industry icon Tommy Mottola in 2003. Three summers later, he was on the radio. Zipping up the Billboard charts and eventually landing on the Village Voice's Pazz & Jop critics' poll, Cassie's "Me & U" had all the sonic fingerprints that would define Leslie's work: a deceptively simple hook, a clarion pulse and synthesizers that felt cold, sweet and ornate, like candy-coated snowflakes. "Me & U" was more than a hit single -- it was a sound, and one that would push Leslie into the anxious purgatory of next-big-things.


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