For much of his career, Ne-Yo has presented himself as a 21st century gentleman, a handsome performer who dresses stylishly, sings incredibly and at times angelically, and dances with lithe grace. His 2006 debut In My Own Words superimposed his face against a notebook, a nod to his origins as a songwriter responsible for Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable,” among other hits. It was a sign to the audience that he was a man with real talent, and not just another cookie-cutter pinup from the black pop machine. Other songwriters during that era tried to emerge from behind the scenes — remember Sean “the Pen” Garrett and Johnta Austin? But Ne-Yo radiated star quality.
The “Mr. Perfect” image has also haunted him. There’s a funny moment on “She Said I’m Hood Tho” from his new album Non-Fiction when a woman (played by R&B singer Candice, one of his protégés) says, “I prefer your old shit to your new shit. That song with Pitbull was kinda cool, but after that you went left and I couldn’t fuck with you.” Ne-Yo wasn’t the only one who alienated his core urban audience while chasing pop crossovers like Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything” and Calvin Harris’ “Let’s Go.” Unlike Rihanna, Usher and Chris Brown, however, Ne-Yo’s adventures in EDM seemed to generate confusion over who he is, and what he represents.
On Non-Fiction, he assures us that he’s an R&B singer, although he can’t help but take a few sonic detours, whether it’s progressive house for “Who’s Taking You Home” or hip-house, of all styles, for “Coming With You.” One mystery remains – he’s recorded several memorable singles full of warmth and honeyed charm, but not a critically hailed masterwork. Usher has his Confessions; Trey Songz has Ready. But the same ability to channel his pencil-and-pad skills into any kind of style, whether it be R&B, dance-pop, or country (see his “Only Human” and “She Is” duets with Tim McGraw) also keeps Ne-Yo from defining himself, if only for the space of a singular full-length work.
Still, Ne-Yo is a creative force to reckon with. The solidly constructed Non-Fiction proves that, as does its breakout hit, “She Knows,” which finds him recapturing the pulse of R&B with help from Juicy J. With time, perhaps he’ll unravel his perfect but enigmatic personality and channel it into a classic as exceptional as his musical talents.
(Rhapsody – January 26, 2015)
Photo by Alex Flint.