Born in Arkansas in October 1979 and then raised in Las Vegas, Nevada, Shaffer Chimere Smith is of African-American and Chinese descent. Evidently a guy with an eye for a handle he called himself GoGo when in the local R&B band Envy but picked up on the Ne-Yo moniker thanks to producer Big D Evans, who compared the young man to Neo in The Matrix – a savvy reference point for someone whose ambition is matched to uncanny powers and self-belief. After some unlikely setbacks Ne-Yo came into the orbit of Marques Houston (aka “Batman”) who was impressed enough to include a song called “That Girl” on MH in the US, though it had already been demo’d by Shaffer for an unreleased album. Between 2000 and 2003 Ne-Yo worked on his craft as a writer and producer and made his impact when Mario cut “Let Me Love You.” Def Jam label head L.A. Reid signed him on the spot after he gave executives a run through of his projected set. In My Own Words duly arrived in 2006, bolstered by the massive worldwide hit “So Sick” and the strong follow-ups, “When You’re Mad” and “Sexy Love” which did so well on downloads they were given a physical release. Ne-Yo’s appealing blend of pop styles, electro R&B and hip hop soul, allied to his charisma and immaculate look, made his name of the household variety but he also found credibility with the dance crowd and the remixed “Get Down Like That” (featuring uber-rapper Ghostface Killah of Wu-Tung Clan fame) gave notice of an impressive arrival. Older soul fans were delighted to hear the sample from the O’Jays, “I Swear I Love No One But You”. Hey everybody was happy…
New discoverers should look out for the release with bonus tracks including a version of the Gamble and Huff cut “Girlfriend”.
2007’s Because of You showed Ne-Yo covering the bases again and moving from hip hop to old school soul. Jay-Z features on “Crazy”, Jennifer Hudson adorns “Leaving Tonight” and the whole disc oozes class and Jackson-like melodic chutzpah. The title track is a case in point here because Michael Jackson features on one of the remixes while Kanye West gets to grips with the official club release, a lovely hand clap, harpsichord and disco groove number that raced up all the relevant charts and was a large factor in the resultant Grammy. A fabulous year for Ne-Yo ended with him performing alongside the Goo Goo Dolls at Senator Barack Obama’s fundraiser in Los Angeles. He came on stage in a black suit, fedora and a diamond earring that sparkled above his jaw as he sang beneath an Obama ’08 banner lit with red and blue stage lights. “This is for Barack,” he said, “our next president.”
Ne-Yo celebrated his 29th birthday with the swaggeringly charming Year of the Gentleman, pretty much a summation of his outlook and style. A superb concept album that takes a look at life from both sides of the sexual divide Year of the Gentleman is a great place to discover this artist and his singular aesthetic. It is stuffed with treasures like the grooved up “Miss Independent” (a US #1 and double Grammy winner) and “Single”, a cut that will also appear on New Kids on the Block’s disc, The Block. This time the vocals are all from our hero though he’s enlisted some crack writers – Rodney Jerkins, Jamal Jones, Chuck Harmony – to help explore the terrain between boudoir and brain. This is a sharp and cultured album that runs rings round lazier R&B artists. Swarming with different noises and mid-tempo magic it allows the star space to show off his increasingly assured sweet falsetto.
Confirming his position as the “It” guy in keen pop dance circa 2010 the single “Beautiful Monster” will become his first UK #1. Grinding up electronica, swooping vocals and slinky house beats this track sets the scene for another gem and no sign of any burn-out: real progressive R&B. On Libra Scale (Ne-Yo is indeed a Libran) the artist sets out to deal with Michael Jackson’s legacy and solder that to his own interest in sci-fi and Japanese animation. Lush strings and a crisp backing choir add to the fun on this conceptual slice of agreeable whimsy. Standouts are everywhere but “Champagne Life” and “Makin’ a Movie” set up the backstory.
Obviously Ne-Yo and his Stargate technical crew are having a ball here and it’s well worth checking out the Deluxe edition bonus DVD for evidence of the party vibe. To cement the Jackson connection he will move to Motown: not just move but also set up camp as senior vice-president for A&R. Good work fella. Given that he’s part of the furniture he might have taken his foot off the gas but on R.E.D. (2012) he changes the rules again with the Sia composed chorus for “Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself)” and another dozen shiny soul pop gem. There’s even one country flavoured piece, “She Is” that features Tim McGraw. If that made folks sit up and take notice then so did the deeper “Should Be You” (featuring Fabolous and Diddy) that sneaks onto the Deluxe edition. We’re digging out “My Other Gun” which jams round elements of Mountain’s “Long Red”, one of the most sampled tracks in history on account of the spectacular drum break.
So to the here and now: 2015 and Non-Fiction with the incredibly catchy “Money Can’t Buy” rocked up by Jeezy – love the nods at William DeVaughan’s “Be Thankful for What You Got” - and the club smash “She Knows” setting up the public for the album and the punchy “Time of Our Lives” (with Pitbull). Something of a break from his own tradition too since the Stargate producers are less in evidence. No matter. When they crop up on “Coming With You” Non-Fiction soars.
David Guetta and David Banner are in the booth on what is one of Ye-No’s longest and most complex recordings. The poignant “Fade Into the Background” has a deep mellow sadness and the classic R&B atmosphere on “She Said I’m Hood Tho” (featuring South African actress/singer Candice) cranks up the sharp wit quotient as well as referencing The Montclairs Northern Soul bomb “Do I Stand a Chance”.
There are always surprises on Ne-Yo discs. Just when you think he’s relaxing into a failsafe format he switches tack and throws out the manual. His crossover appeal (he’s played a hit man in CSI:NY and guest hosted Never Mind the Buzzcocks) is testament to a rare ability to make a connection with the paying public. Take a bow, Shaffer Chimere Smith.
Words: Max Bell
Shaffer Smith has been writing material for mainstream acts since the tail end of the '90s, when he was barely old enough to drive. In 2004, after he adopted the name Ne-Yo -- a sensible move since his birth name is more like that of a sitcom actor or anchorman than an R&B loverman -- his industry stock shot way up for co-writing Mario's "Let Me Love You," an inescapable number one hit. The pointedly titled In My Own Words is the second album he has made as a solo artist, but it's the first to be released, and its presentation clearly intends to get the point across that he's a writer, with images of lyric sheets strewn across the accompanying booklet, and the photo props of choice are pencils and pads, not practically naked models and probably rented sports cars. In My Own Words is a concise album with only one guest verse (from Peedi Peedi), unless you count the unlisted bonus remix (featuring Ghostface). It's very focused and surprisingly taut, especially for a debut that involves several producers. "So Sick," a hit single released in advance of the album, carries a vulnerability not unlike "Let Me Love You" -- it's certainly additional proof that Ne-Yo does heartache best of all -- but it's even more successful at staying on the right side of the line that separates heartfelt anguish from insufferable whining. Its modern approach, interlocked with touches of '70s and '80s R&B sensibilities, is also in effect for the entirety of the album. Beyond a couple lightweight tracks, the album only falters when scenarios from different relationships clash: in "Get Down Like That," Ne-Yo is a righteous boyfriend who turns down the advances of a tempting ex, while in "That Just Ain't Right," he confesses to an ex (who has been an ex for three years) that he calls out her name while in bed with his current lover. The problems, however, really aren't all that detrimental. Ne-Yo is a real talent as a songwriter, and as a vocalist he is unmistakably more concerned with serving the song than his ego. He's not the flashiest vocalist, but he's able to put across contrasting emotions with slight adjustments, and he balances toughness with tenderness exceptionally well -- all of which are uncommon traits in the early 2000s. This album could turn out to be the most impressive R&B debut of 2006, as well as one of several milestones in a lengthy career.
Words: Andy Kellman
In My Own Words, released in early 2006, was a major success for Ne-Yo. It was a number one album supported by two Top Ten singles and a third that peaked in the Top 20. As it kept gathering steam, the singer/songwriter/producer shrewdly continued to write for others: Rihanna's Top Ten "Unfaithful" and Beyoncé's number one "Irreplaceable" kept his profile on the rise through the end of the year. Indicating that he still has quality material to spare, Because of You comes just a little after a year after his debut, and it is just as solid. Though some of the accomplices remain, such as the Norwegian StarGate team (his partners on "So Sick," "Sexy Love," "Unfaithful," and "Irreplaceable") and Ron Feemster, the key to the album's potency and freshness is its differences from In My Own Words. None of the debut's singles were as upbeat as this album's lead single, "Because of You," a sophisticated yet youthful song for the dancefloor, one of many instances where it's evident that Ne-Yo has thoroughly absorbed Michael Jackson and Rod Temperton's rich vocal arrangements on Off the Wall. The album's closing quarter fulfills the contemporary ballad quota, but the preceding quarter provides imaginative and surprisingly adventurous arrangements, as well as some of the nastiest hooks. "Sex with My Ex," the wildest of these three songs, is somewhere between a screwed-and-chopped mix of Prince's "Delirious" and Diddy's "Last Night," its hard beat and synthesizer rays twisted into knots. It's also one of several moments where a newfound swagger is just as convincing as that of prime Usher. Making it to number one on your own, writing a major hit for one of the planet's most popular entertainers, and qualifying as the heir to R. Kelly can have that effect. Executive producer Jay-Z seems to know exactly what he has on his hands: on "Crazy," he completes his verse within the first 30 seconds, allowing his R&B franchise star to take over with no interruptions.
Words: Andy Kellman
Apart from a little more drama, a notion set with the desperate urgency of opening track "Closer," not much makes Year of the Gentleman, Ne-Yo's third album in as many years, all that different from In My Own Words or Because of You. If there are any real shake-ups in the songwriter/singer's m.o., they are subtle, not glaring, typically evident only in the production wrinkles brought by his collaborators. Had each album been separated by a few years of inactivity, this lack of change might be an issue, but since breaking out with Mario's "Let Me Love You" in 2004, Ne-Yo has been nothing if not steady and consistent, a constant presence in the R&B chart who probably could not devise a gimmick if his career depended upon it -- unless you hold those natural and often uncanny Michael Jackson vocalisms, as present as ever throughout highlight "Nobody," against him. What makes the album slightly less satisfying than Ne-Yo's first two albums is that the ballads are slightly sappier and overwrought. The odds are in his favor, however, that no one has written a more gorgeous song about slothful self-loathing. That song, "Why Does She Stay," forms the front end of a two-track patch of glorious gloom -- the album's center, both literally and figuratively -- complemented by "Fade into the Background," where he watches the one who got away get married.
Words: Andy Kellman
Going by this high-concept return, it’s apparent that Ne-Yo was not strictly invested in the output of others -- Rihanna, Raheem DeVaughn, Monica, Rick Ross, and Fantasia, to name a few -- after the release of Year of the Gentleman. Although Libra Scale sounds like a natural extension of the singer/songwriter’s three-album 2006-2008 run, its germination started with a short story, which inspired the ten songs. Some of the details were revealed in the videos for the singles, as well as the album’s booklet, containing a comic put together with living legend Stan Lee. Disregard the dressing, and Libra Scale can be heard as a standard Ne-Yo album. It does not sound like a soundtrack for a story about three garbage men who must protect their city -- there are no character themes, likely for the better -- but one can hear most of the material being expressed by the protagonist as he lives it up, develops a relationship, and deals with the consequences. Most of Libra Scale consists of Ne-Yo's typical modern uptown R&B, with the relaxed, upscale party anthem “Champagne Life,” the sweet devotional “One in a Million,” and the private-reflecting-pond ballad “What Have I Done?” the standouts. “Beautiful Monster,” a Euro-flavored dance-pop single full of drama, is the only song that sounds out of place (and it stalled in the 60s of the Billboard R&B chart). The level of sophistication -- arrangements with subtle details, the frequency of slow tempos, a couple well-trodden motifs -- lends itself to a couple tepid tunes, but Ne-Yo remains a premier source of R&B that is both traditional and contemporary.
Words: Andy Kellman
Libra Scale was the first Ne-Yo release that failed to go platinum. The quasi-concept album didn't come close to making it halfway there. The singer and songwriter, however, wasn't on the brink of recording covers for Shanachie. The album's "Champagne Life" was long lasting on commercial radio, and featured spots on Pitbull's "Give Me Everything" (number one Hot 100), Young Jeezy's "Leave You Alone" (number three Hot R&B/Hip-Hop), and Calvin Harris' "Let's Go" (number 17, Hot 100) propped him up through the release of this, his first album for Motown -- the label employing him as Senior Vice President of A&R. Given Ne-Yo's success with Euro-flavored dance-pop and the continued marginalization of R&B, chances were slim that he would be inspired by his new label to stick to the latter genre. In terms of its place in the Motown legacy, R.E.D. is much closer to a modern-day Dancing on the Ceiling -- with several variations on the title track -- than In a Special Way. This is actually back-loaded with dance-pop; while the serviceable but indistinct "Let Me Love You" comes along early and the dance-pop/R&B hybrid "Be the One" leads the second half, the three-track closing stretch reveals dance-pop as the dominant style. Ne-Yo does not go through the motions, but the songs carry an air of "going about my job in a compliant, professional manner." There's a poor contemporary country duet co-written by Luke Laird (Carrie Underwood, Little Big Town, Eric Church) and co-sung by Tim McGraw, as well as a middling and vaguely cathartic adult contemporary ballad. The highlights are all casual, subtle, finely detailed midtempo numbers and slow jams. What's truly disappointing is the absence of energetic songs descended from soul and funk. It's something Ne-Yo and a decreasing number of major-label R&B artists have supplied the last few years, and nothing here is in the vein -- or on the level -- of "It Just Ain't Right," "Because of You," "Nobody," or "Champagne Life."
Words: Andy Kellman
There are considerable reasons to approach Non-Fiction with doubt. It follows R.E.D., Shaffer Smith's least satisfying studio set. His first release to fall short of gold-selling status, R.E.D. was trailed by another series of support roles on dance-pop singles and rap album cuts. David Guetta's "Play Hard" was the lone track to leave an impression, and it did so far outside the U.S. The first single from Non-Fiction preceded the album by eight months. It and those that followed were all high-profile collaborations, like it didn't matter that eight of Ne-Yo's nine Top Ten R&B hits were made without the involvement of a rapper. A look at the back of Non-Fiction's standard 14-track edition prompts more skepticism: the first three songs are propped up by guests, while track five is "Time of Our Lives," the fifth single from Pitbull's Globalization, featuring Ne-Yo. Patched together and sprawling even in standard form -- it's the television edit compared to the director's cut deluxe edition -- Non-Fiction nonetheless contains more standouts than any Ne-Yo album since Because of You. There's some frivolous content, such as the fireside acoustic number "Story Time" and rote EDM squib "Who's Taking You Home." Beyond that, there's a lot of imaginative and high-quality modern R&B, like "She Knows," "She Said I'm Hood Though," and "One More," all tough but finely crafted slow jams. In the last of that bunch, listeners who dismiss Ne-Yo as soft might chuckle at "I would love the opportunity to rub your feet" and miss that it's a set up for the suggestion of a three-way. The smaller uptempo portion is highlighted by "Coming with You," a dazzling Stargate production like no other that contains a hip-house core and soars. Closing track "Congratulations," another superlative ballad, is like a more mature alternate version of Year of the Gentleman cut "Fade Into the Background," where Ne-Yo once again concedes the loss of a woman who's "wifey material." [The album's standard edition lacks "Non-Fiction," "Everybody Loves You/The Def of You," "Let You What...," "Take You There," "Why," and some intra-track spoken interludes of the deluxe edition.]
Words: Andy Kellman