As with most Harvard grads (and hip-hop moguls), Leslie’s ambitions are predictably boundless. He’s trying to jump-start his own singing career. He’s described a plan for a new type of online bidding site (he got the idea from an article he read in Business 2.0) and also hopes to market a basketball sneaker under the brand name B-Unique. When Leslie first hands me a prototype of the shoe—a leather, old-school high-top—I feel the exact opposite of surprise.
Leslie and L.A. Reid met for over an hour, which presumably is a good sign but has also made us late for our next appointment. We quickly head to the Fifth Avenue offices of J Records, where Leslie is scheduled to meet with label executive Steve Ferrera.
Ferrera hopes Leslie will write and produce tracks for the debut album by Katherine McPhee, last season’s American Idol runner-up. When Leslie arrives, Ferrera hands him a picture of McPhee. “As you can see,” says Ferrera, “she’s obviously extremely hot looking.” (Leslie nods.) “If I put a piece of shit on a CD, it will guarantee a million sales,” Ferrara continues. “But if we get this thing right, it’s Kelly Clarkson. It’s 15 million records.”
Ferrera slides in a CD of a demo song McPhee has already recorded. “I want to see how urban she can go. Believably.” The music begins. “This song is called ‘Open Toes,’ ” shouts Ferrera over the deafening beat. “It’s about hot shoes with open toes,” he yells. The only lyric I manage to make out goes “ ’Cuz I know that boys, they like these open toes.”
This is the real Tin Pan Alley side of the business. A new star gets designated by the label and then later, someone has to write the songs for her. In this case, Ferrera hopes to set up McPhee with Timbaland (perhaps the most lauded hip-hop producer of our time, who recently lent his talent to the new Justin Timberlake album), Babyface (who twice set the record for longest run at No. 1 on the Billboard singles chart), and Leslie. All three will end up working with McPhee; Leslie’s doing two songs. “The biggest thing to come out of that meeting,” Leslie tells me later, “is that apparently I’m now getting put on a level with those guys. That’s huge.” A producer like Timbaland can command up to $250,000 for a single track. “And if Timbaland can put himself on the Justin Timberlake record and the Nelly Furtado record, it seems like I could put myself on this record and raise my profile.”
In the car ride leaving the meeting, I ask Leslie what type of song he thinks Ferrera expects from him. “At this point, I have a pretty signature sound, so when they call me, they know what they’re getting,” he says. “It’s like the fashion houses. Cavalli will have ripped pants and wings and all that. Gucci will be more conservative. I equate myself with Dior—it has rock-star appeal, but it’s still very well tailored and well respected. Prince is more like Cavalli. If you have that kind of musicianship, you can be wilder. I stay in my lane.”
Cassie’s “Me & U,” which Ryan Leslie wrote, produced, and recorded in his living room, became a No. 1 hit. Music executives’ fevered hope is that he might re-create this Svengali-like miracle.
“It’s very simple and direct, and that’s why it cuts through on the radio,” says Chris Richards, a Washington Post music writer who says Cassie’s album is his favorite this year. Where Timbaland samples crying babies and Indian tablas, Leslie puts pretty synth-pop melodies in the foreground. “I wanted to use some trancey dance sounds that aren’t usually found in R&B,” Leslie says. It’s less like a wild creation and more like the grinding of a premed gunner.
On the European tour she and Leslie have just returned from, Cassie did an interview with a Swedish radio host who asked her about “the electrominimalistic sound of Ryan Leslie.” The Swede then began to ask how much of a role 9/11 had played in informing Leslie’s aesthetic. Cassie—a 20-year-old who, prior to recording these songs, had spent time modeling for Delia’s clothing catalogue—was not completely comfortable with this line of questioning.
Mottola has a more succinct analysis. When asked what first caught his ear about Leslie’s songs, he quickly answers, “They sounded like hits.”
The chauffeured SUV speeds north into Harlem. Leslie’s on the phone with a tailor in Boston, ordering several pairs of trousers. (“I have time to revamp my entire denim collection.”) When he’s done with the tailor, he calls a dance studio, trying to book time for a rehearsal later tonight. He’s in training for a video he wants to make for one of his own songs, “The Way That U Move,” an up-tempo dance number that showcases Leslie’s croon, which, while serviceable, is more Cassie than Carey. He plans to self-fund the whole thing, shelling out about $100,000 to hire the video director Ray Kay, who did “Me & U.” I ask him how good a dancer he is. “I’m just trying to polish my natural talent,” he says. “It’s like a diamond—it’s already a diamond, but if you polish it, then it really pops.”