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Leon Thomas has never been too far away from the spotlight. His early days were spent heavily in the acting world as he spent time on Broadway before moving to a big role on Nickelodeon’s Victorious. Both experiences gave Thomas the motivation to pursue a career in music, and after Victorious came to an end, that’s exactly what he did. Over the years, he’s written for the likes of Ariana Grande, Rick Ross, Kehlani, Post Malone, and Drake.
While his talents as a songwriter and producer are undeniable, so are his as a singer himself. Back in 2018, Thomas released his debut EP Genesis, which was spotlighted by “Favorite” with Buddy and “Beg” with Elle Varner. Four years later, Thomas is ready to share new and unheard stories about himself with the world through his upcoming debut album. This project will also be released under a new imprint as Thomas recently signed a deal with Ty Dolla Sign’s EZMNY Records imprint.
Fresh off the music video release for “Love Jones” with Ty Dolla Sign, Uproxx spoke with Thomas about his new releases, his upcoming album, the state of R&B, and more.
What would you say your identity and even influences are when it comes to you being an overall entertainer and creative?
Music is a huge part of my foundation. Most of the roles that I’ve been featured in over the years, from a kid until now, have had aspects of music woven into them in very real ways. Starting on Broadway really taught me my work ethic. Nobody’s really babying you on Broadway, you gotta show up, get it done, hit those rehearsals, and perform every night for everybody who’s paying those really expensive tickets to sit in and escape into this world. So that’s a real big part of my foundation. Showing up prepared, I think preparation is a huge part of all of it.
My family, they’re also very involved in music. My mom and my stepdad had a band that performed and opened up for people like Chaka Khan and [other] really big artists. My stepdad used to play for BB King, Salt N Pepa, [and] Missy Elliott. I just feel like growing up around amazing musicians has always helped me fall in love with music from the aspect of people who really spent time perfecting their craft and coming through with a unique ability.
You released “X-Rated” with Benny The Butcher, your first solo song in a few years, back in May. What made it the perfect time to get back into the swing of things and why that song to start?
First and foremost, “X-Rated” lives in such a very specific place that is really only attributed to my music right now and the next album that I’m about to release. I think seeing what Griselda was doing was super inspiring. I’m from New York, I feel like culturally when you’re being reintroduced to an artist or introduced to an artist for the first time, it’s really important to kind of understand culturally where they’re from. “X-Rated” to me had a lot of that boom-bap attached to it, and adding in Benny The Butcher really, really took it over to the top into that ’90s and nostalgic place. I wanted to really pinpoint that as the through line for what we were doing sound-wise for the rest of the album.
That direction you’re talking about continues with “Love Jones” featuring Ty Dolla Sign. What was the inspiration for that song?
A part of my process when I’m writing and producing records, is I always have a movie on in the background. While we were creating that song, I had Love Jones on. It’s one of my favorite films, I love the cinematography, I just love the vibe of it, it just feels good. I wasn’t able to actually use the scene that I originally had in the intro, but that intro kind of inspired a lot of what I was doing lyrically. Love Jones is about falling in love with somebody who has a passion, who’s artistic. If you think about the movie, Nina and Larenz Tate’s characters both had artistic passions, from him being a poet and her being an amazing photographer, they were able to fall in love in multiple ways at once. That’s an experience that I’ve also gone through personally living in California. Everybody’s got a dream and they’re chasing something more than just a white picket fence and a family. I feel like sometimes you can fall in love with somebody’s passion for the art just as much as you can fall in love with their physical and emotional attributes. “Love Jones” is all about that.
Both “X-Rated” and “Love Jones” sound a bit more slowed down and dimmed from the brighter and more upbeat records we heard on Genesis. What can you say about the total direction of your next project?
For me, it was really important to put it into music and find ways to really document my story and to give people more of a real look into my story as a human being. Outside of chasing charts, I felt like it was important for people to finally get a chance to really have that musical conversation with me and really get into my head and see some of the things that I’ve been going through as a human being. Sometimes I feel like it’s easier to tell stories like that super fast, in your face, and doing all types of stuff. I also co-produced on a lot of his music as well, just as I did on Genesis, but I felt like it was very important for me to express that sonically just as much as I did lyrically. There are certain sounds that bring that out of me and we used all of them on this one.
You did an interview last fall, and in it, you mentioned that you’re okay with being known, respected, and heralded by those behind the scenes more so than wanting all the flashy materialistic things from fame. With your upcoming releases, how would you define them being a success in your eyes?
I think success to me is really being able to genuinely touch the people that genuinely care about the music. Obviously, numbers are beautiful and we strive for greatness, but I feel like genuinely building a brand, that’s breaking a mold that’s been used for a very long time, takes time. I’m personally feeling very patient and I’m ready to just build this brick by brick. I want the same kind of love that J. Cole gets from his fans who are able to really ride with him through being true to himself throughout each and every project that he dropped and released, regardless of what the trends were doing at that time. I really respect him a lot. Even when I was in the Bahamas working with Drake, J. Cole was also out there and we had probably like a four-hour conversation in the studio just kicking it. Seeing the way that guy’s mind works just kind of showed me a lot of the similarities and the places that I like to go. At one point in my life, after I finished up all the work that I’m doing with EZMNY, I would love to have a Dreamville of my own one day or an EZMNY of my own one day, that’s the true idea of success.
What’s a collaboration, a crazy coincidence, or anything in general from your life that without it, you wouldn’t be the artist you are today?
My mom was doing a show and she took me to the rehearsal. A friend of hers was like, “He’s a charismatic kid, he should audition for The Lion King.” I always think about if I would have said no to that opportunity as a kid. Would I be sitting here speaking to you right now? I feel like that was the spark that brought me through an entire snowball of a career that I don’t think anybody expected to be as long and as fruitful as it has been. Even in my adult years, really having huge giants like Babyface open up their studios to me, like opening up that door and saying, “This huge, multimillion-dollar studio is free, and you can just do your thing, you’re good.” To have access to some of the best instruments on Earth, the best equipment on Earth to hone in on my skills, and watch his process a lot with huge artists, really put me in a position to create things for myself that I probably wouldn’t have been able to create as an artist who was reliant on a producer or writer to create for me. For the third one, at a certain point, I felt like I had hit a bit of a glass ceiling. Drake opening up the opportunity for me to work with him as well, became this huge snowball effect of notoriety and people noticing what I’m doing in music in different ways.
What artists can we expect to hear you work with in the coming future? And who’s someone on your bucket list that you can’t wait to work it?
I got some really cool record dropping man. I’ve been working with Snoh Aalegra and 6lack a lot. I’ve been working with Chloe Bailey, I have something with her too, she’s really awesome. We’ll see when they end up dropping all of their projects, but those are three amazing artists that I’ve been able to tap in with who are doing amazing things in the world of R&B. In hip-hop, I took a bit of a backseat because I was doing a lot of stuff in R&B for myself, but I’m really looking forward to working with a lot of the artists killing it right now. I feel like over time, it’s just gonna all come together, it’s gonna work out.
Scroll up to check out the new “Love Jones” video.