Ryan Leslie - Transition

Posted November 4, 2009
Tags: Ryan Leslie,

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that anything can be described with a good sports analogy....

Transition Album Review

If I’ve learned anything, it’s that anything can be described with a good sports analogy. For example, Ryan Leslie is the r&b version of Vince Young. Early in their careers they were involved in huge events that had people predicting great things (the Rose Bowl for Young, U & Me for Leslie). The hype lead to a major signing (Titans select Young third in the draft, Bad Boy signs Leslie to a songwriting contract). In their rookie campaigns they do fine, but ultimately fail to live up to the high expectations (8-5 record for Young, a forgettable debut album for Leslie). On occasion they deliver the kind of remarkable performance that raises hopes of greatness yet again (Young’s four comeback victories, Leslie’s Diamond Girl), but ultimately even hardcore fans have to admit that they might not ever live up to the hype (one touchdown in ’09 for Young, an average sophomore album Transition for Leslie). Leslie has yet to have a mental breakdown and threaten to retire, but other than that you’ve got to admit, it’s a pretty damn good analogy.

The real point here is that the Ryan Leslie’s new album Transition, coming just months after the release of his self-titled debut album Ryan Leslie, just isn’t that good. Leslie has said the album was inspired by a summer of secret love, but there’s isn’t anything particularly summery, secretive or loving about it (aside from the usual r&b fare). I would have loved to have seen a conceptual album that musically chronicled the rise and fall of this possibly fictional summer romance, but instead Transition delivers a collection of mellow, mid-tempo jams that are perfectly enjoyable, but certainly not the kind of stunning work Leslie seems so capable of.

For instance, just take Something That I Like, a minimally produced cut featuring Leslie relying almost entirely on his rap skills to carry the track – unfortunately his raps skills aren’t all that skilled. “I took a picture mentally, when I pulled up in the black on black Bent-a-lly.” Yeah, that’s “Bent-a-lly” not “Bentley”, and that’s far from the only forced rhyme. Fittingly, Pusha T of the Clipse (“yecchhhh!”) stops by for a guest verse, fitting considering the track’s Neptunes-esque sparse production, but even Pusha can’t save Something That I Like from mediocrity. It’s a similar story on the unimaginative Zodiac. While the song’s subject matter is far from original (Tyrese did it better on Signs of Love Making), that’s not necessarily a bad thing, except the bass-heavy instrumentation and Leslie’s pseudo-falsetto vocals aren’t nearly enough to make the track a standout. From the electronic ballad Sunday Night to the metronomic All My Love, Transition is full of well crafted tracks that just don’t have enough life in them to truly connect.

I’m not saying Leslie’s not good (he’s better than the majority of r&b cats out there), I’m just saying that he has yet to consistently deliver top-shelf work. But that doesn’t mean that Transition doesn’t have its moments, most notably Nothing. While the rest of the album is chronically understated, Nothing has a satisfyingly full sound, mixing electro-pop synths with reggae-tinged live instrumentation, a sonic backdrop that allows Leslie to rely more on his ample personality that voice to powerful effect. When the man’s on, he’s on. The same can be said of You’re Not My Girl, a bass-thumping track that’s sole mission is to get people on the dance floor. Well, in the infamous words of G.W. Bush, mission accomplished. I dare you to not at least nod your head to You’re Not My Girl. Thought not nearly as upbeat, I’d also throw in the ballad I Choose You, a track that might be my favorite on the album if it didn’t remind me so strongly of Ralphie asking “You choo-choo-choose me?” Simpson’s references aside, the point is that while Transition isn’t a great album, it does have some great songs.

This is far from the last word. Much like Vince Young, no one knows what the future holds for Ryan Leslie. For all I know he’s in the studio right now crafting some remarkable music, and in ten years he’ll be unanimously considered a r&b heavyweight. He’s certainly got the talent to make it happen. But right now, at this moment, he’s a good-not-great artist who has now made two good-not-great albums. In the end, all we can judge an artist by is the music they make, not the music we wish they made.

DJBooth Rating - 3 Spins

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Posted November 4, 2009
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