On His Grind

Ryan Leslie enamored old and new fans alike last night (June 23) during the first of two back-to-back performances at New York City’s Bowery Ballroom. The R&B singer/ rapper/ songwriter/ producer/ multi-instrumentalist — who parted ways with former label Universal Motown last month — celebrated his new-found independence with performances of former hits like “Addicted” and “How It Was Supposed to Be,” as well as two new tracks: “Glory” and “Maybachs and Diamonds.”

“Never had a top ten, but they still respect my art,” Ryan Leslie sang during “Glory,” which is slated to be included on his third release, “Les Is More” — his first independent album following 2009’s self-titled debut and “Transition.” “Maybachs and Diamonds” is a slow, groovy tune about flourishing his partner with more than just material things, like “Maybachs and Diamonds.”

Initially, Leslie had a four-album deal with Universal, but toward the end of that contract, “Universal was interested in reshaping my deal to more of a 360, and they actually made a counter-offer from the initial recording fund,” Leslie tells Billboard.com. “At that point I saw that as a window to potentially branch off and try something that was going to be new and dynamic.”

Now that Leslie is an independent artist, the 31-year-old hopes to incorporate more of a DIY, grassroots formula to help promote his upcoming project — the performances at Bowery being the kick-off event. Having already partnered with Lexus for a TV ad campaign and having worked with Adidas in the past, Leslie hopes to use similar partnerships as a main marketing tool moving forward.

Leslie, who graduated from Harvard University at the age of 19, also plans to include more merch into his promotions, like giving away free merch and two tickets for the price of one with every ticket purchase. “I’m learning as much as I can about the space that I want to occupy from a business standpoint,” he says.

Hoping to further liberate himself from labels’ “strict loyalty and revenue guidelines,” Leslie, who just returned from a U.K. opening stint for Ne-Yo, is looking to bank more on touring this time around. Although he made appearances at the African American Heritage Festival and Essence Music Festival last year, he expressed a deep interest in broadening his touring horizons, name-checking festival staples Coachella and Bonnarroo in “Glory.”

“In 2011, I really, really want to do Coachella and Bonnaroo and it seems like for those venues it’s usually pretty skewed [for R&B performers]. I think it would be rare if we saw Trey Songz or someone who is considered ‘R&B’ to be at one of those festivals,” he says. “I think that’s something that I’d like to change and I think that the energy of my shows is much more aligned to that type of festival than sort of the choreographed dance of [say] an Usher show.”

And his show last night proved him right. Leslie was energetic as he performed for the ecstatic crowd of fans — including actor Denzel Washington — who sang along to every song, including “Diamond Girl” and Stevie Wonder’s “You and I.”

While Leslie didn’t make any formal announcements about his departure from Universal Motown during the set, he took some subtle jabs at his previous label home. “I’ve always wanted to play these songs but I couldn’t before,” he said while singing “Guardian Angel.” “I always felt like this song should be a single.”

Although Leslie is mostly mum about the details of “Les is More,” which doesn’t have a release date yet, he did reveal he’s been in the studio producing tracks for Keri Hilson, Asher Roth, Ne-Yo, Game, Lil Wayne and more.


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