Ne-Yo’s neo soul grooves strike gold for himself and other A-listers
By Andy Argyrakis
From the pages of BurnLounge Magazine
For a guy who debuted a mere year ago, Ne-Yo’s resume looks he’s a like a finely chiseled veteran. Though the ladies would apply those comments to his lean and highly lusted after body, the singer/songwriter/occasional rapper is more than merely a sex symbol, starting with the chart topping debut of 2006’s In My Own Words (Def Jam). From there, a string of singles R&B and hip-hop influenced singles found mounds of airplay, including the sultry “Sexy Love,” the smooth, post break-up anthem “So Sick” and the seduction centered “When You’re Mad.” Along the way he’s also scored prominent guest slots on songs by LL Cool J, Ghostface Killah, Jay-Z and Busta Rhymes (amongst countless others) not to mention songwriting credits on some of today’s most recognizable pop singles (including Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable,” Rihanna’s “Unfaithful” and Musiq Soulchild’s brand new “Ms. Philadelphia”).
“I’ve seriously seen more in the last two years than I have in my whole life,” says a calm and cool Ne-Yo phoning in from a Los Angeles studio during the final sessions behind the brand new Because of You. “Before that, I’d never been outside of the U.S. or even in half the States. I guess you could say I had a very shoebox perspective. But now that I’ve crossed the globe twice, I have a much bigger outlook on life, love, sex and everything in between.”
The somewhat slow rocket ride
Though it appears as though Ne-Yo’s comet came out of nowhere, he was actually writing for lower tiered pop acts throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s as a mere teenager, racking up credits with now defunct boy band Youngstown and R&B sultan Marques Houston. As time went on and his track record spoke for itself, he picked up higher profile clients such as Latin sensation Christina Milian and neo-soul man Mario. After proving himself behind the scenes, Ne-Yo was given a pass to the artistic front lines via Def Jam, finding instant favor with well over two million worldwide album sales of that first CD.
“I literally had my whole life to make the first album and now I have six months to make the second,” the now twenty-four year old offers with a laugh of his frequently delayed sophomore endeavor. “Usually if the first one does well, it can still be written off as a fluke and people will say ‘he got lucky and that’s all he’s got.’ Basically that’s why people take so much stock in the second album because it kinda proves whether or not you’re worth it.”
While most relative newcomers in his position would be wholeheartedly fearing a fall into the sophomore slump, Ne-Yo applies the stress to his advantage. Rather than worrying about any detractors or critics, he’s combined the confidence from the first go around with his plethora of eye opening travels to unflinchingly forge ahead.
“To be completely honest, I’m not letting the pressure bother me as much as I probably should,” he offers without the slightest bit of cockiness that Ne-Yo’s genre amalgamation typically breeds. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, in fact, I don’t think there’s such a thing as perfect. But it needs to be right, not just for me, but as a collective [with the label and fans] as to what songs make it and which ones don’t. I’m not approaching it all that different from the first, but I’m in a good place mentally this time around. The first time I was in an on again, off again relationship and the music reflected that.”
This time through, fans can expect a less dramatic, much more confident and free flowing Ne-Yo, quick to tell a personal antidote or reflect upon a memory from his whirlwind year on the road. Even more than the renewed lyrical landscape is an incredibly compelling sonic pedigree, comprised of several influences from the artist’s youth.
On one hand, it’s clear Ne-Yo’s a disciple of Michael Jackson in both his boisterous ballads and R&B tipped grooves. However, he also shows an affinity for 1970s funk a la Stevie Wonder and the 80s dance appeal of Prince, along with a somewhat unexpected muse of Sammy Davis, Jr. No, the bedroom crooner hasn’t turned into a stand-up comic, but he has picked up on the Rat Pack-ers’ showmanship and ability to break down barriers.
“My mother was a blue collar woman who worked in casinos in Las Vegas when I was growing up, which got me into the whole Sinatra and Sammy scene when I was young. Sammy was the one I gravitated to, not only because he was black, but because I thought it was real cool how he was being accepted by a top notch group of whites during a time when it was not cool for whites to accept blacks. That goes to show you good entertainment breaks all barriers! As for MJ, the song ‘Because of You’ is an unofficial tribute that has his type of swing to it, while stuff from Stevie and Prince seeps into a ton of other places.”
Author for other artists
Despite the attention surrounding this new collection, it’s impossible to ignore the surrounding buzz of Ne-Yo as a songwriter, especially in light of the aforementioned recent smashes by Beyoncé, Rihanna and Musiq Soulchild, not to mention a recent tag team with Snoop Dogg. Yet with a career that’s blossoming on his own, one has to wonder if the gifted writer will be as hasty in turning over top tunes to other acts or keeping them to himself for future use.
“Making music for me is like playing video games for a little kid- you don’t have to tell me to do it, it’s just fun to me,” he explains. “‘Irreplaceable’ wasn’t written specifically for Beyoncé- I did it with [production team] Stargate and we were trying to write it as a country R&B song. From a guy’s perspective, the lyrics would’ve come across mean and cocky, but when you flip a word here or there, they can come across empowering and show the strength of a woman. I remember a few women heard those songs and they weren’t sure if they could pull it off, but Beyoncé’s such a risk taker and she loved it. But hypothetically speaking, if Faith Evans asks me to put a song together, I go in with that mindset and don’t keep it for myself because it’s for her.”
Future hit list
Given the fact that much of what Ne-Yo touches turns to gold these days, countless artists are coming out of the woodwork and asking for his help in reviving their careers. The top spot on his list is none other than the King of Pop himself, who reached out via new album producer will.i.am (of Black Eyed Peas fame). “At first he called and said he needed me to do stuff for him, which at first I thought meant working with Fergie or the Peas, which would’ve been very cool,” Ne-Yo recalls. “Then he said MJ at the end, and after I picked the phone back up, I told him I’d be honored! The thing is it’s been a little while with him and he’s not going to get a slanged out hip-hop song from me. This is just my opinion, but as a man in his 40s, he shouldn’t try and keep up with Chris Brown. It’s got to be mature and melodic, which is what I dug about him anyway- that amazing voice and those melodies that takes your mind to other places.”
Another old school cat attempting a comeback is Whitney Houston, who after liberating herself from New Edition bad boy Bobby Brown is potentially back on track thanks to legendary producer Clive Davis. Though Ne-Yo’s never met the diva, he’s spoken with Davis on numerous occasions and is currently helping pen what could be her ultimate comeback album. And speaking of picking up the pieces of a fallen star, the writer’s also been contacted by Britney Spears’ camp, who are truly desperate for a hit after her string of erratic episodes.
“It always helps to have a conversation with the artist directly and hopefully we’ll be able to work that all out soon,” he shares. “That way if you’re going to write about a break up or any topic, you can customize it. Mary J. Blige wouldn’t be the type of girl who would sit up and cry over a dude, so you’d lean it more in her direction. I just spoke to Celine Dion and her husband in fact and she wants something up to date, but not trendy or another ‘Irreplaceable.’ I don’t think that will be difficult with a voice like hers and that makes writing more fun.”
And the list goes on and on, from Usher to Chris Brown to the Pussycat Dolls’ Nicole Scherzinger and Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson (whom Ne-Yo duet’s with on “Leavin’ Tonight” from his new CD). “I have to be very careful keeping it all straight, but I’m blessed to have people around me that have figured out how to make the schedule work to a certain extent,” he continues. “There is no absolute, but to a certain degree we can track from this hour to that hour who I’m supposed to be writing for, which as long as I stick to it, normally pans out.”
Artist to actor
Throughout the flurry of activity, Ne-Yo still tries squeezing out some free time to continue cultivating an acting career. His recent role in Stomp the Yard opened up a whole new expressive avenue for the entertainer, while that subsequent star power helped it become the first number one movie of 2007 and pull in $26 million over the four day weekend.
“It was a lot of fun doing the movie even though it wasn’t my forte,” he admits. “All I knew about actors was what you see on VH1 and E! and I was expecting that sort of stereotype. But everyone was super helpful to the point where they’d answer any questions I had before I finished asking them and they became really cool friends. I can’t wait to do it again and I’m currently looking at one or two scripts in depth. It’s gotta make sense with the music, which will always be number one, but if I can find something to do while promoting album, then by all means!”
The road ahead
As for the immediate future, Ne-Yo plans to keep the visibility behind Because of You flying high with a tour, which would basically be a continuation of his Scream 5 outing from late last year (sprinkled with several new songs). But before he hangs up with the promise of a forthcoming road itinerary, Ne-Yo wants to make one point very clear.
“I’ve been saying this to every reporter because I want them to get the word out,” he asserts, pausing for a split second in hopes of building up the mystique. “I want all my fans to listen with an open mind and understand that this is not a second version of the first record. There aren’t any drastic changes, but I’m not the same person I was two years ago because I’ve evolved on all levels. So when you get it, listen with an open mind, give it a chance and I think everything will work out.” If the past is any indication, that’s likely to be the case, placing Ne-Yo amongst R&B and rap’s most elite A-listers, who could very well prove over time to be “Irreplaceable.”
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