Reintroducing Leon Thomas III, Drake’s Certified Secret Weapon

It’s the first Friday in September, and Leon Thomas III picks up the phone, recognizing my number without hesitation. We’ve been planning this call for a few months now, maybe a year, but somehow, this was the day it happened. 

The day we landed on, completely by accident, was monumental for the same reason it was monumental for the rest of the music world — it was the day Drake released his Certified Lover Boy, his long-awaited, end-of-summer fireworks-show of a sixth studio album. And of the behemoth LP’s 21 tracks, Thomas — who has already worked with heavyweights from Ty Dolla $ign to longtime friend Ariana Grande to soul superheroes like Snoh Aalegra — co-wrote and co-produced three of them.

Anyone who’s glanced at Twitter at all this past week knows why the world is buzzing about Thomas, whose vocals you can hear pitched-up behind Drizzy and fellow Brooklynite Jay-Z on “Love All,” and whose contributions are the beating heart of “In The Bible” and “Pipe Down.” The producer, now 28, is the same Leon Thomas III who starred as Andre in Nickelodeon’s Victorious. And while the industry may now just be opening its eyes to R&B’s most famous secret weapon, with some tweets about his features clearing 100,000 likes, Leon isn’t going to take all the credit. 

“I feel like all the flowers are, you know, deserved for Drake at this point,” he tells SPIN over the phone on CLB’s release day. “He put so much work into this project. And I’m just so blessed to be a part of it in the ways that I could be. I mean, honestly, I still got these blinders on; I still got my focused mindset. And I’m already thinking about my next moves. How can I properly utilize all of these blessings? But tonight’s gonna be my first time to really smell the flowers and hear the music out in public.”

After a year of relentless studio work, Leon deservingly spent last Friday celebrating the placements of a lifetime. But he knows that the time he spent with Drake in the Bahamas to work on CLB, and the vocal samples he chopped up with others, are just the start. Just like he knew that growing up as a child star was the perfect springboard into full-time production and songwriting.

Truthfully, there was never a moment Thomas knew he wanted to be a musician; it’s all part of his family lineage. He grew up with parents in a band, One Nation, that opened up for acts like Chaka Khan. His mom coincidentally never believed in babysitters, allowing Thomas to soak in the atmosphere at New York club Lola’s every Wednesday night. That exposure to live music eventually led him to audition for The Lion King on Broadway at age 10, landing the role as Simba.

The dominos continued to tumble for Thomas, with Nickelodeon tapping him to voice Tyrone in the children’s show The Backyardigans; and a major opportunity then opened on the Robin Williams film August Rush — a movie where Thomas was able to record his first major studio tune, “Father’s Song,” which still has viewers weeping on YouTube. From there, the inevitable happened.

“Nickelodeon pretty much knew they wanted to involve me in something, but then the writer’s strike happened and three years went by,” Thomas says. “But around the end of the strike, they found a show that they thought I would really, really shine on, and that was Victorious.”

On the show, which debuted in 2010, he starred as the lovable and uber-talented Andre — a character whose kind heart and musical chops aren’t too far off from Thomas himself. On the series, he met now-close friend Grande, with whom he built an unbreakable musical connection both on and off-screen. If you ask some fans, the pair’s first off-screen spark was a 2012 cover of Drake and Rihanna’s “Take Care,” which Thomas now admits feels a bit full-circle looking back, especially on Certified Lover Boy Day. 

“[The show] was the genesis of me getting a song placed that I wrote and was playing guitar on. It just felt like a great way to balance both of the worlds I was really passionate about,” Thomas says. “Nickelodeon is shown all over the world — literally all over the world. That opportunity gave me the kind of exposure that you can’t even buy, man. I mean, I grew up with a whole generation of people, and they look up to me in a certain way.”

But now, after seeing his name next to the 6 God, those fans are looking at Leon differently. And these looks are long overdue. After Victorious finished its run in 2013, Leon quickly earned his first major album inclusions via The Rascals — his production duo with musical partner Khris Riddick-Tynes — on Grande’s debut album, Yours Truly, producing four tracks, including opener “Honeymoon Avenue” and Grande’s first major ballad, “Tattooed Heart.”

“We spoke a lot about her reaching the top of the charts one day, you know, in the school room and in our dressing rooms right next to each other,” Leon recalls. “I’ve always been a fan of her voice prior to the rest of the world, knowing that she was one of the best, and seeing her living her truth and taking those steps was just a beautiful moment to be a part of.”

Thomas played a major role in many of that album’s defining moments, and he brought a similar magic touch to her latest project, 2020’s Positions, working on fan favorites “Nasty” and “Safety Net.” He says working with Grande introduced him to many of his “firsts” — from seeing his songs performed on major stages to being part of a No. 1 album — and he laughs when admitting he “created a whole career path off of just kind of hanging out with [his] friends.” Still, it clearly worked out in his favor: His vocals now sit on the most-streamed album of the year.

Thomas’ focus is now less on the acting he’s known for and more on cementing himself in the publishing world. To him, it’s an art that he hopes will feed future generations of Thomases, and he even gives a bit of a lesson on spotting talent on the phone. “It’s trying to really attach yourself to projects that you know are going to feed you later,” he says.

It’s still very much Certified Lover Boy week, and the world is starting to notice Thomas’ years of behind-the-scenes work post-Victorious. He’s understandably excited about the commotion during our call, even making an Instagram story expressing his gratitude to fans shortly after. At this point in his career, Thomas recognizes that few reach this position — and more importantly, he’s confident that even fewer are able to get to where he’s headed from here. 

“To be able to kind of reach this kind of status, man… A lot of people who do their career switch […] don’t even receive a fraction of what I’ve been able to lock in on,” Thomas says. “I’m just eternally grateful. And I feel like everybody should, without being corny, genuinely follow that passion. Because it’s always going to feel better in the end.”

IMPACT

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