Leon Thomas’s talent has been undeniable since day one. His swagger and flare always brought a little extra oomph to whatever role he touched, from the set of Nickelodeon’s Victorious series to his 2018 breakout EP Genesis. Between his soulful cadence and his infectious personality, Thomas is proof that while growth, evolution, and puberty are inevitable, his ability to hold notes and make an audience fall in love and into their bag is everlasting.
An artist in his own lane, Thomas’s pen game is just as strong as his voice, lending his artistry to the likes of platinum-selling and widely-respected artists including, but not limited to, Drake, Giveon, Post Malone, Ella Mai, Jessie Reyez, Snoh Aalegra, and former Victorious castmate Ariana Grande. Since the pop off of Genesis, fellow R&B artist and friend Ty Dolla $ign announced Thomas as the first artist of his newly founded label, EZYMNY, a joint venture with Motown Records. To take the collaboration a step further, the two joined forces in the booth to bring fans “Love Jones,” a follow-up of Thomas’ first single “X-Rated” ft. Benny The Butcher, which was released in May 2022.
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The now Grammy award-winning artist (who earned his accolade thanks to mentor and legendary singer-producer Babyface for his songwriting contributions on he and Toni Braxton’s 2014 joint album Love, Marriage, & Divorce) dates his love for music all the way back to his elementary days. The son of two parents with a club date band, Thomas was always surrounded by music. For him, picking up a guitar or a set of drumsticks was nothing less than an average day. His curiosity and interest in the world of music eventually led him to Broadway, where he starred in productions of Caroline, Change, The Lion King, and Oprah Winfrey’s production of The Color Purple.
“I was able to just really see creativity on a very high scale and level, which really sharpened a lot of my tools to the point that when I left a lot of the theater stuff and got into shooting movies, I had a work ethic incomparable to some of the other people around my age and in my field at that time,” Thomas tells ESSENCE about his Broadway acting experience.
As the multi-hyphenated star and creative embarks on this solo journey, Thomas is illustrating what it means to be a hustler with multiple talents, ranges, and niches.
What was the moment in your life where you were like, okay, this music thing is what I want to do for the rest of my life?
LEON THOMAS: I think I was around 13 years old and I had just gotten signed to Columbia Records through a deal that Nickelodeon had set up. That’s when I was signed to my first development deal with Nickelodeon. The network took really good care of me and they put me in a studio with a couple musicians and kind of let me produce at like 13 years old. I just remember telling the bass player what to play, the guitarist what to play, coming in with my own song written on the acoustic guitar at that time, and just seeing everybody work in tandem. That experience to me became addictive and I remember just feeling like this is what I’m going to be doing for the rest of my life. It took a long time for us to be able to materialize a lot of the songs that I was making around that time.
About three years later, I was starring in Victorious and a lot of those songs ended up being featured on the show, which was a worldwide international audience that showed so much love to the songs I was writing in my bedroom. The songs I was just kind of putting together as a kid in Brooklyn. It was a really good feeling to just see people of all races and genders genuinely just express love and gratitude for what I had to offer.
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Did you say Brooklyn?
THOMAS: Yeah, I’m from Brooklyn. I’m from Park Slope.
I’m from Bed-Stuy.
THOMAS: Come on, hometown. Let’s go.
I knew this was going to be a good conversation.
THOMAS: I went to public schools out there, too. We never did the whole private school thing. I had to homeschool while I was shooting the TV show for Nickelodeon, but that was cool. I was on my last two years of high school, so it wasn’t too crazy. I was able to really be shaped by New York City, and it’s such a beautiful, beautiful place, man. I mean, there’s so much you can learn like culturally speaking. I feel like coming out to [Los Angeles], I realized a lot of people live in their own personal bubbles and I’ve always been a fan of being more than just a citizen of my state, but a citizen of the world. When I was in New York, I was doing work with the UN and I was able to see how big this world is and how impactful you can be on an international level.
Oftentimes, people talk about being pigeonholed into one role or being stuck in family-friendly children’s programming. What was your transition like from Nickelodeon to being on Insecure, creating your own sound, and shaping your career as an adult?
THOMAS: Around 19 years old, the show had ended and I started working with legendary songwriter and artist Babyface. He took me in and let me use his studio. I was pretty much in there day and night cooking up new ideas and learning from some of the giants that he had coming in there, like Lionel Richie, Stevie Wonder, all these like absolute giants in the industry that I had the blessing of hanging around as like a young kid. Half of them thought I was an intern, but I would be in there actually writing and catching vibes with him. The fact that he gave me opportunities to work with the Toni Braxton that early immediately broke the shell of like, “am I going to be in this pop family-friendly world forever?”
[It] gave me the confidence, even in the acting space to step into roles that I knew would push forward my narrative as a man. One of the first shows where I felt like, “all right, I’m really doing some different stuff,” was Satisfaction on USA Network. From there, I started doing a bunch of films and getting locked in into really amazing roles, but Insecure is where I think things got real serious, and then Detroit. Working with Kathryn Bigelow, Anthony Mackie, and all these epic Oscar award-winning people showed me [that] although a lot of people knew me from a lot of the stuff that I did on Nickelodeon and Viacom, I was stepping into a world that was really embracing me. Vicky Thomas, who cast all of the Quentin Tarantino stuff, cast me in both Detroit and Insecure. It was really beautiful to be able to collaborate with the casting director that believed in my abilities as an actor in the same ways that Babyface was able to believe in me as a musician and an artist.
What are some of the key lessons that working with Babyface has taught you?
THOMAS: I think it’s the balance between being more than just a creative, but understanding the power of also being a real executive. I think seeing how he would have label heads come in, hang, listen to music, shoot the shit, and just vibe showed that was a huge part of having a long-lasting career within this industry; genuinely responding to emails and being involved in multiple aspects of the process. The greatest thing creatively was talking through songs. I mean, we would spend, I want to say two hours before we would write a word, just talking to an artist, figuring out who we’re writing about, what’s their story, what’s our angle, and what can be said that’s going to be different from what everybody else is saying and submitting to them from other teams. I consistently, to this day, use that for my own work, especially when I’m working with a lot of other artists.
What would you say is the key to longevity in the entertainment business?
THOMAS: I think professionalism is a big part of all of it. I’ve never seen Anthony Mackie late to set. I’ve never seen Babyface cancel a session last minute. He’s very on time, active, and present. I think we’re in a society that thinks being a diva is cool or being an asshole is cool, but I’ve seen the people that really are able to create longevity in this understand that it’s not always about being likable. Sometimes you got to speak your truth and stand your ground, but being easy to work with is definitely a good plus.
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Let’s fast forward to your music and the opportunity of being signed to Ty Dolla $ign. What has your collaborative relationship been like with him?
THOMAS:There was this song that I did with a really good friend of mine, Ali, and it was a really good record. After I finished the song, I wrote “Love Jones, featuring Ty Dolla $ign.” I didn’t know Ty Dolla $ign. I sent the song to Ali and Ali was like, “yo, I’m actually working with Ty. You should come, hang around, and maybe you can get something on the album.” I started working with Ty around that time and we started just collaborating. He would invite me to the studio and it would be a star-studded affair. I’m talking Skrillex, Jacob Collier, all these amazing producers and songwriters in one room shooting different ideas around. It just felt like an amazing collaborative process. I took time around that particular season of my creativity to really focus on the production and songwriting space and started working with Drake.
I feel like when we started circling back to the idea of artistry, he ended up doing a feature on that “Love Jones” record. It was a huge example of manifestation at that point. Over time, we were just trying to figure out, how are we going to put this out because I really wanted to respect all the different aspects that he would need as an artist to be able to comfortably put something out when it comes to budgets or whatever else. They were saying that they had a new venture forming over at Motown and Shawn Barron has been such a huge part of connecting me and Ty in this business sense. He’s the A&R that helped push a lot of those records from “Paranoid” to all of his big hits.
He just felt like this would really be a great opportunity for us to do something in R&B that you don’t see a lot. The big brother, little brother moment exercised in the R&B genre that you might see with Baby Keem and a Kendrick [Lamar]. I’m so grateful to have somebody so knowledgeable and real. That’s really my homie and it’s good to have a great rapport as well as a solid business relationship filled with respect. I’m excited for the world to hear the records that we’re putting together.
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Speaking of Love Jones, what parts of the movie inspired your single with Ty Dolla $ign?
THOMAS: There’s this thing I do creatively, especially when I’m working on my own music, because most of the times I’m at my house or another friend’s house who has a really nice setup. We would put movies on in the background and just create. Sometimes we would have them muted and sometimes we would have the sound on, but for this whole last project, it was tough to actually put these scenes in the songs because of clearance. Initially, that song had a scene from Love Jones in the intro. I really feel like the song in its essence is genuinely about connecting with somebody who has a similar creative path as you.
If you think about Nina and [Darius], there were all of these different elements that they were able to connect with through art. That’s essentially what the song is about, living in California and connecting with somebody who inspires you in more ways than the physical and the emotional. It’s aspiring to see them just killing it in their art. That’s a different kind of love story.
How would you describe your sound now, and how would you say it compares to music that you’ve created earlier in your career?
THOMAS: There’s a lot of elements that I’ve carried on from my last project, but I feel like the difference within what I’m doing on this new album, I’m definitely playing with more alternative themes. The technical term would be alternative R&B, but I feel like there’s definitely like a big influence of the early 90s and late 90s within a lot of the sound choices and soundscapes that I put together. I co-produced a lot of this stuff with a bunch of my friends and it’s great to see all of these records come together and speak to each other, because a lot of them were made at different times in my life, in my journey in the past three years. I engineered and mixed this project myself. There’s elements where I’m getting experimental with my voice, pitching it up, pitching it down, and playing with different themes and ideas that I had living in my head for a long time. That’s an aspect that I’m not going to wear on my chest in every interview, but I really like the fact that I was able to really put my full DNA within this project. So what you’re hearing is me.