Hip-Hop, Music

Shape-Shifting Rapper Sean Leon Talks Indie Success Beyond Play Counts: ‘I’d Love to Take Those Numbers Away’

While Leon often rejects traditional routes to success and accolades, he’s gained quite a bit of both of his own. In addition to writing on seven of the 10 tracks from Daniel Caesar’s Case Study 01, Leon scored a No. 1 Billboard Hot 100 hit as a writer on Justin Bieber’s “Peaches,” featuring Caesar and Giveon, and won a Grammy for his writing on Kanye West’s album, Jesus Is King, which took home the award for best contemporary Christian music album. The gilded gramophone is currently en route to Leon. “I’m trying not to obsess over it,” he says with a chuckle. “I’ve learned that a tracking number is your best friend, but it’s your worst [enemy] too.”

Outside of his own artistry, Leon is an architect of Toronto’s creative infrastructure. In 2019, he created PUPIL, a production company that focuses on amplifying Black voices and stories through five mediums: sound, form, reel, home and time. PUPIL recently collaborated with Red Bull on a documentary titled House of Leon, scheduled to hit the festival circuit later this year, and supported The Right Now Project — a remote arts education program for inmates at New York City jails — by providing instrumentals for inmates to write music over. If that wasn’t enough, Leon also worked as a writer on Hulu’s sci-fi hip-hop series Utopia Falls, and served as co-creative director on longtime friend Caesar’s Case Study 01 tour.

Today, Leon feels the most connected he’s ever been to his creativity and vision, but not long ago, the multi-hyphenate was contemplating leaving his solo artist pursuits behind — at least until he met Kanye West in 2019, a link-up that changed the trajectory of his career. Billboard caught up with Leon to discuss his new album, rediscovering his creativity with Kanye, and the impact of streaming metrics on indie artists.

How’s your mind doing these days?

In the last three months. I could call myself successful. I don’t think I could utter those words before. For the first time in my life, I’m really just driven by my ideas and my curiosity. I’ve never been so plugged into my thought process or knowing where I want to go. But I think in order to achieve that, I had to turn my back on almost everything and everyone else. But [it’s] a small price to pay. I have energy because I only focus on the world I’m building.

Let’s talk about that world. What was the thought process behind God’s Algorithm?

God’s Algorithm doesn’t exist without COVID. I went from being around a community to being at home, working on my music by myself. I started exploring the relationship between music and technology and was wondering — is [technology] helping my loneliness, or is feeding it? Then I started exploring the themes on God’s Algorithm.

The intention of the [website] was to speak to [fans] directly, because I was getting so exhausted competing on social media platforms. If I’m going to Spotify, Apple Music or Tidal, and releasing this music, there are certain things that I have to do in order to meet the criteria and be successful by the standards of their metric system. But if I’m just creating something that is going to serve as a platform and experience for people to consume my art, I have way more freedom and I can create a more immersive experience that’s not as 2D. I love Instagram and make great use of it with what was laid out for me. But I was thinking — what does my art look like in a space that I can control completely?

You haven’t released the entire God’s Algorithm track list on streaming platforms, and have sort of rejected these traditional platforms and systems. Why is that?

[There are] so many reasons to be against the streaming services. The way they compensate artists, the gatekeeping, the way the work is cataloged. I don’t think artists really have enough say, especially independent ones, on how their work looks, where it stands [and] who’s next to it. I’d rather have 100,000 fans that I can just speak to directly. I can achieve a user base of over 100,000 people that are not passive — they signed up because they’re enthusiastic.

But on the flip side, I understand the value of [streaming services]. I love having access to every single song that was ever made on my phone. That’s something we take for granted. So it’s not anti-streaming services; there’s a good potential that under the right circumstance, the music does end up hitting streaming services.

How do you think metric systems used on streaming platforms affect indie artists?

We don’t need to know how many plays somebody got. That exists because it’s a way for people to make money, by creating a hierarchy for music. It’s oppressing artists and robbing them of their confidence. It’s why they won’t release their work, because they don’t feel like they’ll get a million plays in the first week. I’d love to take those numbers away and go song for song with a lot of [artists]. In that scenario, my catalogue would be extremely impressive, [but] when you look at the numbers, it’s like the numbers of any independent artist. 

Working with Kanye was sort of a turning point for you. How did that happen?

The music industry was really frustrating me at the time. Beginning of 2019, I was like, “I don’t want to be a pop star,” so I started songwriting. I wrote a song for Daniel [Caesar] called “Restore the Feeling.” Danny invited me to finish the album with him in LA. When I went, I ended up meeting so many of my favorite artists: Brandy, Babyface, Pharrell and Chad [Hugo], Jay-Z, it was crazy. A week later we went to Sunday Service and I met [Kanye]. When I heard [the choir] for the first time, I literally balled.

Afterwards, my friend River Tiber said, “You should’ve played Kanye ‘The Glade,’” a song I wrote for myself and just sat on. [The next week] I’m like, “Yo, am I really gonna sit in LA and watch Netflix? Or am I going to show [Kanye] this song that I know he’s gonna love?” So I snuck back into Sunday Service. [After the show] he let me play the song right there. He loved it. I gave him the files for the song and my contact info, and I went back to Toronto. Two weeks later, his engineer hit me saying that Kanye wanted me to come out to Calabasas to work on Jesus is King.

As a kid, I was like, “One day I will meet Kanye and he’s gonna love my music.” College Dropout was the first CD I ever bought. I felt indebted to him before I even met him. And now I got a Grammy in the mail.

How did those experiences in L.A. with ‘Ye and Danny affect you? 

Before that, I don’t think I had a validating moment. I’m independent, so I have to celebrate my own victories and I can’t be certain that I should be celebrating them. Sometimes I wonder, “Is this just my ego?” It was validating when I saw [Jesus Is King] bring my parents a lot of joy. It made me return to my faith and explore it in a deeper way and actually get curious again.

I don’t think I’ve ever fully doubted my fate. I have moments of weakness. But I’ll always bounce back; I truly believe that this is a prophecy for me. And on top of that, it’s harder to quit now. I can see my work impacting and affecting people. I spent maybe the last nine years creating a base. It was really post-Kanye and post-tour with Daniel Caesar that I realized that I can do anything and slowly start building vertically.

It looks like you’ve got NFTs on the website too. What’s that experience been like?

People started hitting me up every single day about NFTs which at the time I knew nothing about. [When I added NFTs], the response was really great.  We’re on the precipice of a digital migration and revolution. And we’re seeing that in currency, with crypto, but I think we also see that in social and cultural ways. [NFTs] are a tool for an artist to empower themselves or their movement. Like any new innovation, there will be a group of people that try to exploit it but I think beyond that, it’s another way for an artist to be compensated and entrench [their] narrative.

I just love the idea of decentralizing everything. If used correctly, [NFTs] are ways that an independent artist can really make a comfortable living, and be rewarded with the resources necessary to continue doing what they love.

Aside from Daniel Caesar and ‘Ye, who else do you aspire to write with?

SZA. I’m very curious about how her mind works. I think she’s terrifying in the best way possible. Frank Ocean as well. If I could just be a fly in the wall and just watch him. I think Drake is secretly responsible for a lot more than he lets on. I’d love to just see him work. 

Looking forward, what are your goals?

To hit 100,000 users in the God’s Algorithm user base. But I genuinely don’t believe in the [judging musical success by metrics] anymore. I think my only goal is to create scenarios in which I can continue to work and operate at this high level. Freely, without worry of money and things like that.