ARTICLE CALLIE BEUSMAN
HE STARTED FROM THE BOTTOM, WENT STRAIGHT TO THE TOP, THEN BACK TO THE BOTTOM, AND NOW HE'S HERE. WE TALKED TO THE INCREDIBILY TALENTED, NOTORIOUSLY FICKLE RYAN LESLIE ABOUT HIS NEW MUSIC VIDEO FOR "THE BLACK FLAG" (FROM HIS NEW ALBUM BLACK MOZART) PREMIERING ON VMAN.COM
The dominant narrative that accompanies Ryan Leslie’s astronomical rise in the hip-hop scene is rather unconventional. On the set of his most recent music video, in a dazzling white expanse of a studio in Chelsea, he puts it succinctly: “Harvard to homeless to Harlem.” That is to say, Leslie came from a humble background, graduated Harvard when he was 19 years old, and, after a brief stint on his parents’ couch, he asked for a loan from his father in order to start his own studio. By age 24, he had become one of the world’s most renowned producers under the tutelage of Sean “Diddy” Combs and Tommy Mottola. However, his true passion lay in performing. Thus, in a strange inversion of the typical path to success—what his mentors have called “hussling backwards”—he set out to become a rapper, despite having already accrued all of the trappings of fame and fortune.
Despite these trappings, Leslie is incredibly warm and gracious in person, quick to point out how fortunate he’s been and to share the credit with others. He equanimously acknowledges that entering the game having already bested it, in ways, does come with a downside. Last year, for instance, the laptop on which he had stored countless tracks-in-progress was stolen; he offered a $1 million reward for it, and someone returned it empty of data but nonetheless sued him for the whole sum.
“I chalk it up to just the cost of doing business at this level,” Leslie says tactfully. “To even have been blessed to have made millions of dollars, to have someone be able to target me…” The lawsuit, filtered through Leslie’s persistent optimism and remarkable work ethic, became a source of inspiration and resulted in his forthcoming fourth album, Black Mozart. In place of a traditional studio, he took out an entire floor of the Imperial Hotel in Vienna to work on it. Although the album is more aggressive, it’s not merely a response to the court case: he claims that the tracks “run the gamut of my personal experience,” touching on many subjects, including his long-standing love of classical piano.
Elaborates Leslie, “My record actually opens up with a piece by Frederick Chopin, which is transcribed by Franz Liszt.” Musing on the extravagance of his studio location, Leslie states, “The way I live… some people call it flashy, some people call it ostentatious, some people say I have too much bravado.” Later, he adds, “Maybe now I’ll be less showy, so to speak—I’d just seen [excess] all around, and it wasn’t even real in a lot of music videos. I said, ‘Well, man, my real life looks like this. Why wouldn’t I?’”
It’s true—for all his showiness, Leslie is a true aesthete with an encyclopedic knowledge about his interests. “As an artist, it’s always, for me, about the craft,” he explains. “If I was to make a car, I would want to make a Bugatti or a Rolls Royce. So, when I’m making music, I invest just as much in it.” When asked about fashion, he quickly lists a slew of campaigns that have most inspired him recently. “I have a huge respect for the fashion industry,” he proclaims. “If you’re in a room, it’s always the best designed room, the art direction is the best, the lighting, the photography, the styling, the silhouettes—it’s always aspirational. That’s what I love about it.”
Reflecting on how to reconcile his public, performer persona with his appreciation of the finer things in life, Leslie begins to laugh slightly. “I want to live my life onstage, in a different city every night, being a rolling stone. You know, maybe I have nice luggage, but that’s what I live out of.”