Ne-Yo: Starry Starry Knight
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 seven years will unquestionably go down in the history books for introducing to the world one Arkansas-born, Las Vegas-raised Shaffer Chimere 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 “Year Of The Gentleman”) plus two internationally-chart-topping singles (his 2006 debut “So Sick” and his 2008 Euro-dance-flavoured “Closer”)… But has also seen him write successfully for artists ranging from global R&B chart-toppers Rihanna (“Take A Bow”), Beyonce (“Irreplaceable”) and Mario (“Let Me Love You”), to such latter-day mainstream pop divas as Celine Dion and Leona Lewis.
Meanwhile, on a straight-up artist level, November 2012 will see the eagerly-anticipated release of Ne-Yo’s fifth studio album “R.E.D.”.
Born to musician parents in October 1978 and raised by his African-American/Chinese mother 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 R&B 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 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 them being shelved, it wasn’t until 2006 - after penning one of America’s longest-running Number Ones of 2005 (Mario’s aforementioned “Let Me Love You”) - that a new deal with Def Jam would find Ne-Yo teaming up for the first time with New York-based 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 a 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 over the years 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 charming 32-year-old Ne-Yo who today welcomes “Blues & Soul” Assistant Editor Pete Lewis into his luxury suite at Central London’s Sanderson Hotel to discuss such far-ranging topics as his aforementioned new LP “R.E.D.” and becoming a father for the first time...
PETE: While you originally wanted to call your new album “The Cracks In Mr. Perfect”, you later changed your mind and are now actually titling it “R.E.D."
NE-YO: “Yeah, “The Cracks In Mr. Perfect” was initially gonna be a full album project about just the kinda unfair perception of an artist. You know, as an artist you’re kinda expected to be, in a manner of speaking, PERFECT. You’re not allowed to wake up on the wrong side of the bed one day and just not wanna deal with anybody - not sign an autograph, not take a picture… That’s completely TABOO. And the day you decide that’s what you wanna do, you’re an asshole for the rest of your CAREER. Nobody knows that you just had an argument with your girlfriend or you just got some bad news about whatever... They just know that you didn’t wanna take a picture at that MOMENT - so you’re a JERK! You know, people lose sight of the fact that we artists are still PEOPLE… But then, in the process of putting this album together, I realised that calling the album “The Cracks In Mr. Perfect” was honestly just a means to COMPLAIN. And in the grand scheme of things, I’ve absolutely nothing to complain ABOUT! Because I get to do what I love as my PROFESSION! I’m not waking up every day going to some office job that I hate, or whatever the case may BE. Instead I get to do MUSIC, and I can feed my family DOING it - and that’s a BELSSING! So as a title, “R.E.D.” - as in “Realising Every Dream” - is more a celebration of my first love - which is music - and the fact that from age nine to now pretty much every dream that I’ve ever dreamt, every goal that I’ve ever set out to achieve, I’ve accomplished through MUSIC! And if I HAVEN’T accomplished it, I’m pretty damn close to DOING so.”
PETE: So what did you want to achieve musically with this new album?
NE-YO: “Well, primarily I decided to just keep it about what I’ve ALWAYS done - which is just to make the music GOOD. Plus because, while I am essentially R&B I am also aware of my pop and dance audience, I wanted to make sure this album had more of a balance of the two styles. You know, because the only thing I felt that was wrong with the “Year Of The Gentleman” album was that there was only one song on the album like “Closer”, that was a mistake that I decided not to MAKE with this album. Which is why, even if I do say so myself, I feel this is the most well-rounded album that I’ve DONE. In that there is an equal amount of material on there for all my R&B fans AND for all of my pop fans... And so it’s basically an attempt to please my entire fanbase.”
PETE: And lyrically?
NE-YO: “Well, I have been saying that lyrically this album is a lot more HONEST. But then, at the same time, that would actually imply that my other albums WEREN’T honest, and that’s not the CASE. So what I do mean by ‘honest’ when speaking about “R.E.D.” is that there’s a level of honesty that I’ve gone through on this album that is almost honest to a FAULT. In that I’m telling truths about things that I probably shouldn’t, and I’m doing it against the advice of certain PEOPLE in my life! But you know, at the end of the day it’s about being as real as humanly possible with my FANS. I want my fans to feel they know me through my music, and the best way to do that is to be no-holds-barred and just put it all OUT there! To where any question that you have about me can easily be answered by one of the songs on this ALBUM.”
PETE: So how do you now look back on your last LP, 2010’s “Libra Scale” - a highly ambitious project concept-wise that didn’t sell anywhere near as well as your three previous albums?
NE-YO: “Well, I can’t speak for the record label side of it all because I don’t wanna point my fingers or throw any EXCUSES at anybody. But I will say on MY side of things that, on that specific project, I didn’t pay as much attention to the actual MUSIC as I normally would - simply because I spent more time trying to get the visuals and the STORYLINE right. Basically I was trying to take all the things that I’d learnt in the movies I’d just been doing and incorporate all that into my MUSIC career. And the lesson I’ve since learnt from that is that there’s a REASON why movies take as long as they do to be produced. And that is because there’s a lot of very painstaking, small detail that goes INTO it all. Whereas the time it takes to put together an album is much SHORTER… So what ended up happening with “Libra Scale” is that, instead of doing it THIS way we did it THAT way, instead of working with THIS person we worked with THAT person... And it just became a lotta corner-cutting and half-assing - and I think the people could feel that when they came to HEAR it.
PETE: With hindsight you releasing “Closer” (Ne-Yo’s dance-flavoured second UK Number One) back in summer 2008 can now very much be seen as you pioneering the current trend of US R&B vocalists going the Euro-dance route to attain international success. How did you come to record it?
NE-YO: “Well, I was definitely not trying to set a trend with it or anything LIKE that. To be 100% honest, “Closer” was a science project - it really WAS. It basically came out of me spending so much time out here in London at that time, and going to these clubs where you’d continually be hearing the DANCE music - the house, the techno... You know, it basically impacted on me to the point where, when I got back to The States, I found myself sitting in a room with (internationally-chart-topping Norwegian urban producers) StarGate going ‘Let’s see how I’D sound on something like that’... So we did the record; I was like ‘OK, we could probably sell this to somebody in that world’ - and they were like ‘Wait, wait, WAIT! Why don’t YOU keep it?’. You know, because I didn’t think my fans - especially the hardcore R&B ones - would understand me on that type of track, they like literally had to talk me in to KEEPING that record!... And of course I now thank God that they DID, and I also thank God that I LISTENED!”
PETE: And so what are your views now on the undisputed impact “Closer” has since had on today’s music scene?
NE-YO: “Well, while it certainly feels good to be part of a pioneering group of people that started a movement and I’m happy to be seen as a trend-setter not a follower, at the same time I don’t so much like what that movement in itself has since done to the world of R&B! I mean, I’m not sure whether it’s down to the current dance music craze or whether the genre as a WHOLE needs an overhaul, but I do feel that R&B is SUFFERING right now. To the point where people are now actually saying to me ‘Why don’t you just do an all-dance ALBUM - because that’s where you sell the most records and you get the most RECOGNITION today?’... Which is something I could never DO! Because I could never turn my back on the fanbase that put me where I AM - which is my R&B fanbase - and, while I do have a love and an appreciation for dance music and pop music, the fact is my heart and my foundation are both still very much IN R&B!... So, even if I have to do it the way I’ve done it on this new album for the remainder of my CAREER - blurring the lines by mixing R&B records in with the pop and dance records - to me that’s COOL.”
PETE: With your role as Tuskegee Airman Andrew “Smoky” Salem in the recently-released America war film “Red Tails” being well-received (Ne-Yo featured alongside Cuba Gooding, Jr. and Terrence Howard), how do you now look back on that experience, and what’s the situation right now in terms of your acting career?
NE-YO: “Well, the “Red Tails” experience was honestly INCREDIBLE. You know, I definitely learned a lot about myself THROUGH that experience... Which is probably why at the time I was so excited to try to bring some of that stuff into this MUSIC world with the “Libra Scale” album... But while I do dig the acting thing and I definitely have love and appreciation for the craft, it’s just not to me what MUSIC is. I mean, a very, very incredible opportunity just came across the plate (he was recently offered a starring role playing iconic Sixties civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King) that I had to turn down, because of the fact that they were trying to shoot around the same time my ALBUM came out. And I just couldn’t give priority to that over properly promoting and getting this album OUT there... So yeah, as I say, I do have a love and appreciation of the craft and you will definitely see me in some more acting projects - but only if they’re spaced out to where I can do my music as WELL. Because while I love acting, for me it will never take the place of MUSIC.”
The single “Let Me Love You (Until You Learn To Love Yourself)” is released September 2. The album “R.E.D.” follows November 5, both through Def Jam
FOR MORE FROM THIS FASCINATING INTERVIEW WITH R&B SUPERSTAR NE-YO, INCLUDING; MORE OF NE-YO'S THOUGHTS ON HIS LAST LP, MORE ON HIS NEW ALBUM AND WHAT HIS FUTURE PLANS ARE... ALL AVAILABLE IN OUR PRINT EDITION, WHICH YOU CAN CLICK TO BUY BELOW.
Words PETE LEWIS