Ryan Leslie proclaims as he opens his Top 40 R&B hit "Diamond Girl," the lead single from his highly anticipated self-titled U.S. debut. It's impossible to imagine a box expansive enough to contain the singer, songwriter, producer, engineer, Internet visionary and chief executive of NextSelection Lifestyle Group. Though his talent defies categorization, the Harvard graduate is a performer at heart, a prolific musician with his own infectious brand of R&B pop. While an international following awaits the August arrival of Ryan Leslie, he's kept fans satisfied by documenting his wizardry and the restless road towards his release date on his YouTube channel RyanLeslieTV, which boasts more than 14 million video views
Leslie's journey to stardom began long before Universal signed him in 2003. Ryan was born with music in his blood. Gifted. "At nine months he had an impressive vocabulary, and by age two he was reading," says his father Clement Leslie, a Salvation Army officer and trumpet player who passed his musical talent down to his son. "Once, we caught him dancing to the rhythm of a whirring Coke machine." At age nine, Ryan taught himself to play the piano, often practicing for seven hours a day. He recorded Boyz II Men-inspired harmonies onto a dual cassette deck, piecing together layers of his own vocals. "I became fascinated with the sound of my own voice," Ryan recalls. Three years later, his father got an electronic beat machine, and changed young Ryan's life
At 15, Ryan scored 1600 on the SATs and was accepted to Harvard University, where he was nearly kicked out for spending all of his time in the studio instead of class. During his freshman year, he'd discovered the genius of Stevie Wonder and felt like he had an overwhelming amount of catching up to do. "I was calling record labels and taking meetings," Ryan says, "pretending to be my own manager." At his graduation, 19 year-old Leslie received a standing ovation after delivering the esteemed Harvard oration, urging his classmates to follow their dreams
After attempting to follow his own dreams by selling beats in Boston, Leslie found himself sleeping on his parents couch in 2002. "Four years after I graduated, I'm at home with nothing except for some bills," Leslie says. His father maxed out his credit card buying studio equipment to give his son another shot at his dream deferred. "I've got to make the best music I possibly can," Leslie promised himself. "This is my last hurrah." The hard work paid off when Leslie landed an internship with New York producer Young Lord during which he produced Beyoncé's "Keep Giving Your Love To Me" for the Bad Boys II Soundtrack, which led to a meeting with Sean "Diddy" Combs and a very busy 2003. "Britney Spears, Beyoncé, New Edition, Loon, Cheri Dennis, B5, Danity Kane -- any and everything he threw at me, we did," Leslie says of producing alongside Diddy. "And we sold records."
"The proof is in his work," says Combs, who went on to sign Leslie’s flagship artist Cassie, the Princess of NextSelection, to Bad Boy in 2006, releasing her No. 1 mega-hit "Me & U," written and produced by Leslie. "I think he's definitely one of the next rising stars." Tommy Mottola agrees. "His potential is definitely unlimited…not only as a songwriter and producer, but certainly as an artist." Leslie is excited to finally be the frontman. "I never set out to do anything that I've achieved as a producer, I've always been doing this," he motions around his Harlem studio, where he's constantly crafting new tracks and videos, strategizing his online popularity, and adding content to RyanLeslieTV. "I’m thankful for everything being a producer has done but I was only but so satisfied."
Determined to live up to his boundless capabilities, Leslie has been busy crafting his new album's twelve tracks, six of which already have videos on RyanLeslieTV. The controversial site takes fans behind the scenes with over 40 videos of Ryan's remarkable creative process -- he does it all while crafting his new single "Addiction" featuring Cassie—making magic on the drums and keys, manning the boards and crooning in the booth until 8:00am; He's rehearsing with his muse Cassie; making a song called "Sometimes" for her, which received five million plays on MySpace without a commercial release; blowing away the crew at SIRIUS Satellite Radio with a heartrending piano composition over Lil Wayne’s "Lollipop."
Viewers watch the rough cut of the official "Diamond Girl" video in which Ryan reenacts James Brown’s 1966 Ed Sullivan Show performance. Always pushing the limits, Leslie masterminded another version of "Diamond Girl," a teaser clip in which he arrives in New York via helicopter in a black suit and shades, James Bond style. His diamond dealer—Russian supermodel Irina Sheik—waits in the car with the precious stone in a briefcase. Our hero invites her for a ride in the sky for a private negotiation and the spy saga unfolds. Ryan winds up falling for the Russian dealer, dedicating an ode to the model that plays her on his album. The "I-R-I-N-A" video features Ryan crooning in sped-up slow motion to a sexy woman who helped him get his swagger back after his Diamond Girl left him heartbroken.
But R-Les wasn't truly over his real-life Diamond Girl, and the results are a collection of earnest love songs that surprised the usually unemotional business-minded mogul when they started streaming out. Ryan Leslie plays out like a love story, a series of songs sent to a girl in hopes of winning her back. "Addiction" is a moody mid-tempo on which Ryan and Cassie can't get enough of each other while the insistent "Shouldn't Have To Wait" foreshadows the beginning of the end of a relationship. On the energetic "How It Was Supposed to Be" a regretful Ryan still hasn't escaped his infatuation with his lost love. "It's like you walked right up out my fantasy / and then you left that day, girl, why did you abandon me?" Ryan flexes his falsetto on the Morris Day and the Time-inspired "Valentine" on which he accepts that his ex is no longer his, and that he still loves her.
Amidst readying Ryan Leslie for release and overseeing NextSelection, Ryan takes time on RyanLeslieTV to sing a tear-jerking Mother's Day ballad, backing himself on the piano. A classically trained pianist herself, his mom must be mighty proud of her wunderkind son. "I'm really about leaving the legacy that I've created the best art that I possibly could. Hopefully the energy is contagious," Leslie says, as "Addiction" starts bumping through his Harlem speakers. "And here it is..."