Ne-Yo: Finding the right balance
In R&B music over the decades, the number of chart-topping singers who have separate world-class songwriting careers that genuinely match the success of their own recordings is few and far between.
Nevertheless, the past five years will unquestionably go down in the history books for introducing to the world one Arkansas-born, Las Vegas-raised Shaffer Smith - aka Ne-Yo. Whose own artist career not only already includes three multi-Platinum albums (2006’s ‘In My Own Words’; 2007’s Grammy-winning ‘Because Of You’; 2008’s Double-Grammy-winning ‘The Year Of The Gentleman’); plus two internationally chart-topping singles (his 2006 debut ‘So Sick’; plus his 2008 Euro-dance-flavoured ‘Closer’)... But has also seen him write successfully for artists ranging from global R&B chart-toppers like Rihanna (‘Take A Bow’), Beyonce (‘Irreplaceable’), and Mario (‘Let Me Love You’); to such latter-day mainstream pop icons as Celine Dion and Britney Spears.
Having grown up in a one-parent household after his father left, a young Shaffer (rechristened ‘Ne-Yo’ by a producer friend who likened him to the ‘Matrix’ saviour!) first went public as a singer in the 11th Grade, after joining local Las Vegas group Envy and moving with them to LA. With his initial writing having been limited - during his school years - to private journal entries and poetry, Ne-Yo would nevertheless also soon emerge as a talented upcoming songwriter.
All of which ultimately led to his first solo record deal with Columbia Records in 2000. However, with changes in said label’s structure disappointingly leading to the album he recorded for the being shelved, it wasn’t until 2006 - after finding new management - that a new deal with Def Jam would find Ne-Yo teaming up for the first time with Norwegian urban music producers StarGate to deliver a world-conquering debut LP ‘In My Own Words’.
Meanwhile, with the multi-million-selling, chart-topping global success he has since consistently attained as both a singer and songwriter having been well-documented, Ne-Yo (who has publicly confessed to having slept with every girl in his High School class!) has also simultaneously generated considerable gossip column-inches. With innuendos and rumours regarding his sex-life and sexuality running rife alongside stories of alleged legal battles with fellow artists - and February 2008 even finding him being arrested for reckless driving!
Nevertheless, it’s a charismatic, upbeat and confident 30-year-old Ne-Yo who welcomes Pete Lewis into his luxury suite at Covent Garden’s St. Martins Hotel to discuss such far-ranging topics as his StarGate-produced new single ‘She’s A Monster’ and its accompanying LP ‘Libra Scale’; his ideas on being a gentleman; plus working with country superstar Tim McGraw.
PETE: Let’s start by discussing your new single ‘Beautiful Monster’. Which combines musical influences of US pop/R&B and European dance with a darker lyrical edge…
NE-YO: “The song itself is a small piece of a much larger puzzle. In that the album it comes from - ‘Libra Scale’ - is based upon this short story that I wrote, which basically follows these three characters who are forced to choose between money-power-and-fame versus love. Which in turn is why I’ve called the album ‘Libra Scale’. You know, its whole concept is based on that question of morality - that, if you weigh it all out on a libra scale, which one of those two options would you choose? And the song ‘Beautiful Monster’ actually represents the mind-state of the man in the story whenever he comes into contact with his love interest-slash-nemesis. Whose name is Diamond Eye, and who really is best described as ‘a beautiful monster’! You know, she’s forbidden fruit; she’s that girl who you know is gonna be nothing but trouble... But - because she’s so intriguing - even if it literally might cost you your life, you still cannot resist her aura. Which is where the hook ‘She’s a monster, a beautiful monster; But I don’t mind’ comes from!”
PETE: So what in general can we expect musically from your forthcoming fourth album ‘Libra Scale’?
NE-YO: “With my last album ‘Year Of The Gentleman’, when we put ‘Closer’ out as the first single it proved a bit of a curveball to my traditional core urban/R&B fans. Basically - although thankfully over time they did grow to like it - at first they didn’t understand it and felt a little left out of the equation. So, instead of running into that problem again, this time around in The States we’ve actually put out TWO first singles. So in addition to ‘Beautiful Monster’ - which is more for my dance crowd that enjoy pop music and that kind energy - we’ve also got another record called ‘Champagne Life’, which leans a bit more towards my soulful R&B-type fan. And I think those two songs in themselves pretty much represent how this album swings from either side of the pendulum - from soulful R&B and hip hop, to pop music and even stuff that might sound a little countrified. Basically I tried to put as much of ME on this album as humanly possible. And the fact my pendulum swings all the way from Stevie Wonder/Marvin Gaye to the Beatles and Elton John, is pretty much reflected in how this album sounds overall.”
PETE: How do you now look back on what your last LP - 2008’s globally-successful, Grammy-winning ‘Year Of The Gentleman’ - achieved?
NE-YO: “Musically I’m happy with what it achieved. But, in terms of the message, I’m NOT so happy! You know, the whole concept of ‘Year Of The Gentleman’ was to kinda revive chivalry and respect for women. It was all about what it is to be a gentleman in EVERY ASPECT! Whereas the common consensus I got was that people felt it was more ‘OK, if I put a suit on it makes me a gentleman!’! Which is NOT what I was saying! I put the suit on for the album because it was comfortable, and I felt I looked good in it - plus it just happened to be part of the FASHION sense of being a gentleman. But, you know, CLOTHES DO NOT MAKE THE MAN! And I feel people kinda got that misconstrued - to where you now see a bunch of guys calling themselves gentlemen walking around in suits! Whereas my thing is, if you put on a suit and you call a woman a bitch, you’ve missed the MARK! You didn’t catch what I was trying to DO!... But, you know, it is what it is. Some people get it, some people don’t - and I make music for those that GET it!... And my message to those that don’t is, ‘Listen HARDER next time!’!”
PETE: When we last spoke - in spring 2008 - you were writing and submitting songs for what would have been the since-sadly-deceased Michael Jackson’s next album. So are those songs now ever likely to be heard?
NE-YO: “I don’t know yet. I’m kinda torn. You know, I can’t give them to anybody else because they were written for Mike, and so that would be disrespectful. But then I’d almost feel equally disrespectful trying to put them out on MYSELF - because, again, they were written for MIKE! So I’m still debating what I wanna do with them. I mean, Mike never actually got to sing them himself. So they basically exist as demos sung by myself. And as of right now they’re sitting comfortably somewhere where they will not get leaked, they will not get hacked… And the world will not hear them until it’s time for them to be heard!”
PETE: So what other artists have you been writing for recently?
NE-YO: “I’ve done some stuff for Jennifer Hudson’s new album; for Rihanna; Nicole Scherzinger; Kelly Rowland; Marcus Cooper, who’s formerly of the group Pretty Ricky and is now doing a solo project... Though the most DIFFERENT thing I’ve done is a duet with (40-million-selling country music superstar) Tim McGraw for HIS forthcoming album.”
PETE: What’s the thinking behind you expanding genre-wise in that way?
NE-YO: “I’m basically trying to nail home that I’m not pop, I’m not R&B, I’m not country, I’m not jazz… I’m MUSIC! Which means that I can embody and encompass ALL of it! I mean, before I leave this world I do plan to do some alternative ROCK songs even! So my working with Tim McGraw and with (Tim’s wife and fellow country superstar) Faith Hill very much represented me stepping in that direction! And the whole process of writing with them I found INCREDIBLE! They invited me out to Nashville to hang out with them on their estate; they had a guy come in with a guitar; we’d sit there and start humming melodies; somebody’d grab a piece of paper to write down some lyrics - and there would be your SONG! And because I rarely - almost never - do it that way, I did find it very refreshing to take that whole different approach. As opposed to what I normally do - which is write a lyric and melody over a track already put together by a producer.”
Find out about Ne-Yo's input on the last recorded Michael Jackson tracks and what other artists he has worked with lately in the conclusion of this interview in our limited edition printed mag available this month from all good high street outlets and from this very site to pre-order now.
Ne-Yo will perform at MEN Arena, Manchester on February 13 and at Wembley Arena, London on February 14 (tickets from Ticketmaster on 08444 775 775)
Ne-Yo’s single ‘Beautiful Monster’ is released August 9. His album ‘Libra Scale’ follows on September 20, both through Def Jam Recordings/Mercury Music Group
Words PETE LEWIS