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You can almost feel an omnipresence in Leon Thomas’ debut album, Electric Dusk. It’s the presence you hold when you watch a film, and your observation blankets each scene, but is never seen. The album feels cinematic, like a Dolly Zoom is keeping Leon in the center of the foreground within Los Angeles, shrinking then expanding behind him. The sky swirls from orange to blue, cars go as quickly as they come. Sometimes it feels like the city is telling his story behind him. He's always there in the foreground, but he knows how to shift perspective with white-glove intention. Then he knows how to throw the gloves away like they were never even there.
He takes himself in and out of the picture without ever really leaving. It’s a magic trick he’s been doing for years in the music space. He has worked in production on Drake’s Certified Lover Boy and Ariana Grande’s Positions, and in songwriting for Babyface and Toni Braxton’s Love, Marriage, & Divorce, just to name a few. He says, “working with other artists, I’m able to see mistakes they are making at the height of their career. The teams they have around them define how long and far they can go.” Having been submerged in the industry before ever taking center stage in 2018 with his EP, Genesis, has given him a bird’s eye view. It’s one that is felt in Electric Dusk, even though the world he creates is fully his own.
When we meet him on Zoom a few days before the album’s release, he is wearing a white Kith knit. A bright orange candle is burning behind him set next to a potpourri of dried purple, orange, and green flowers atop a wooden tree branch desk. He shares, “the emotions that went into creating this album were varied. It was so much frustration, I’ll be honest. I felt like I wasn’t really being heard. I was being heard by a lot of people’s favorite artists, and could get my ideas out through them, but I wanted to be heard as myself and embody the vision of myself I see in my head.” This describes the album well - as much as it is very much Leon Thomas, it also feels like a vision of him - in what he was, is, and will be. His vision is expansive; it’s classic yet innovative and rule-breaking. And now was the right time - Leon mentions “The Drake Affect,” as he says, “if you’ve worked with him in any capacity, the industry is like ‘Hey kid, you need a shot!’ [old man accent]. That’s how execs talk, they got cigars and top hats. I just knew this was a good season to spin the block on labels.”
I wanted to be heard as myself and embody the vision I see of myself in my head.
Electric Dusk is immersive. It smells like silk, champagne, satin sheets, saxe skies, cedar stools, and smoking sage. Los Angeles as the background seeps in every corner. The first few seconds of the album starting with “Slow Down” sounds like a match being lit right before he sings, “glad I found a lighter for her cigarette,” setting the atmosphere for the rest of the tracks. Of the track, Leon says, “‘Slow Down’ has the perfect juxtaposition from what I love from the live space and from the programmed space. That record and ‘Fade to Black’ really show how I envision that balance. I love drums but I also love live music. I’m very excited for people to hear that blend done in the way I envisioned it.” “Slow Down” sets the cinematic tone as well with a message to drive-in “moviegoers” at the end of the track; “Welcome to our drive-in theater. We have a wonderful evening’s entertainment lined up for you. We will provide several hours of pleasurable relaxation and diversion for you and your family. Did your family dress up for tonight’s show? No tie, an old shirt and slacks, a house dress? Well don’t give it a thought. We just want you to enjoy yourselves. We hope you have a wonderful time.” After this point, the album is like a romantic film to fall into.
SLOW DOWN by LEON THOMAS
Leon Thomas has seen himself in the music space since he was a child on stage with his grandfather and Wynton Marsalis as their golden trumpets cried and sang for Louis Armstrong. He watched how their lips were tight, but not too tight. How their hands were firm, but gentle. How their shoulders relaxed. How the sound made his heart slow. How easy it looked, but how that wasn’t the truth. He says, “I woke up this morning and put on Art Blakey. My grandfather used to tour with him and a lot of those guys. Jazz was a huge part of my upbringing. When I was a baby, I was on stage for a 100 trumpet salute for Louis Armstrong done by Wynton Marsalis. Jazz from day 1 has been a part of who I am. Miles Davis’ album Kind of Blue was an album my grandfather and I listened to in the car on the way to Manhattan. I respect jazz - it’s a home cooked meal I’ll never forget.” This classic sound underscores a lot of the album, as he shares, “This album makes me think about the 1960s, drop-top Cadillac at the drive-in, looking out at a scenic view, listening to a crooner sing about love. I wanted to capture that vibe with these records, but in a new way.”
Now after decades of being immersed in the industry, he knows how to make music that feels simple, almost easy, like the classic Jazz musicians he watched as a child. He says, “[I’m proud of] the simplicity of some of the lyrics, especially with songs like ‘Blue Hundreds’ and ‘My Will.’ I was playing with psych-rock elements and R&B. The effects on the guitar even come from that 60s realm. It was cool to mix that in with the hip hop elements from the co-producer, Axel Foley, who works with Kendrick Lamar.” He later says, “A lot of guys can practice their life away, but it takes a tasteful musician to really travel through this musical universe. It’s hard to be simple and effective. That’s where a lot of genius lives.” “Blue Hundreds” in particular, has a live Jazz feel, almost as if it’s partially improvised. It also sounds cinematic, in a classic southern way. At the very beginning, you can almost imagine a camera panning up to a smoking gun. As the song moves forward, he creates an intense “scene” through sound alone. “Treasure in the Hills” is transportive - it feels like being dropped into a 60s jazz bar among a twinkling piano, red velvet carpet and curtains, suit-shadowed walls, and the smell of Old Fashioned cocktails and smoke kissing in the air.
I respect Jazz - it's a home cooked meal I'll never forget
If “Treasure in the Hills” feels like a full-zoom movie scene, “Sneak” feels like a complete zoom out, making the background of Los Angeles feel cosmic. I imagine two distinct people become dark silhouettes among the city’s watchful lights. There is a high-pitched choir-like sound over his voice, almost like the city’s angels are responding to him. That omnipresence is especially palpable in this track. It also feels new for him and experimental. So while the album sounds classic, it also feels pioneering, especially in its R&B side. He says, “My perspective on modern music is that technology will always evolve the sound, regardless of what we consider ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ I really respect people who try new things. It’s a real sign that you’re getting old if you can’t empathize with someone trying something new for the first time that feels different and weird.” “Fade to Black” is also especially innovative in the programmed space.
When asked about his creative process, he shares, “For some of the more fast-paced hip hop leaning stuff, I’ll collaborate with this co-writer, Bizzy Crook. We have a crazy text message thread where we send each other passages of verses - a verse off. I’ll do tetris with bars. We start with lyrics because storytelling is really important. Melody comes extremely easy to me and I’ll try that on a couple tracks until it’s right. With the singer/songwriter stuff, it’s me on a guitar until I get it right.” And he just knows when it’s right. He continues, “I listened to these songs more than any human being can possibly listen. I’ve heard every nook and cranny! I heard Dr. Dre mixed a lot of his stuff and I wanna be like Dr. Dre so here we are!” When listening to the album, every lyric, sound, instrument, and cadence feels like pieces just sliding together perfectly in every small groove. And again, he makes fitting those pieces together look easy even at the highest level.
In 2022, Ty Dolla $ign signed a joint venture deal with Motown Records for his newly launched EZMNY Records, announcing Leon as the label’s first artist. The journey to this chapter had not been an easy one. Leon shares that he was involved in a legal battle before he was able to switch companies, and he had been sitting on this new music for years; “Records you’re listening to now were done years ago and I knew the world would love them.” With Ty Dolla $ign, he is finally able to express himself fully. He says, “Music is an exchange and I want people to understand me a little better. I spell out the range of emotions I feel as a human being throughout this album. It’s a conversation about how I feel dating in L.A, it’s insane! It’s a nuanced conversation, but in the end, the centerpiece is that I want people to understand me better and get into my mind.”
I spell out the range of emotionsI feel as a human being in this album.
He recalls a moment with Babyface when he realized he needed to loosen his grip a bit on perfection, and just be honest and himself; “There was this pressure I was putting on myself to be THE BEST. [Babyface’s] whole thing was that I should just try my best to be honest, and everything else will come. He also talked about the ‘cool factor’ and he always thought I was cool in the way I moved through life and operated as a human being. He wanted me to implement that in my music and I definitely took his advice when creating Electric Dusk, for real.” As he sits back in his chair on Zoom and eats his egg scramble, the ‘cool factor’ seeps through the screen (he does very much want to emphasize though that he never eats during interviews), but it’s this casual, yet clear and thoughtful chat that made him even more likable.
“Breaking Point” is one track he considers particularly close to him as a person. He shares, “I’m proud of ‘Breaking Point.’ It was a vulnerable moment for me. Looking back at the songs I’ve written for myself and other people, I feel like I’m always living in this imaginary world, but that was my actual life at that time. It was so cool to see people respond to that. It was a surprise to me, to be real.” The song’s music video looks like a black and white film, with slow and sensual shots that zoom in and out. Leon says, “I got to work with an amazing director, PONCHO, who worked with Hype Williams back in the day. It was bare bones, we didn’t have a huge budget. He really made it work so I really respect that.” Two versions of the song are on the album, with the last track being a Victoria Monét feature.
In the cinematic universe of Leon Thomas, we are still in his past while he is far forward into the future. He says, “Me and Ty [Dolla $ign] have recorded close to twelve or thirteen songs…you guys are at chapter one right now, but know we got chapters done for you guys! Get ready for some really cool creative projects!” We’ll be waiting in the end credits of Electric Dusk.
BREAKING POINT by LEON THOMAS
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