Most likely, a song he didn’t sing: Ne-Yo wrote Beyonce’s inescapable hit “Irreplaceable,” which was No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for ten weeks while becoming the best-selling single of 2007.
So he’s a backroom songwriter?
Yes, but not only that. He entered a family of musicians as Shaffer Chimere Smith in 1979. When Ne-Yo was still young, his mother and father separated, and she relocated everyone else from Camden, Arkansas to Las Vegas. By the time he reached 21, his R&B group Envy had already formed and disbanded; Columbia Records then signed him to a solo deal and dropped him before a finished album could be released. He began working as a songwriter, penning tracks for Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans and Christina Milian (among others), but none became very prominent beyond their liner notes. Many weren’t even released. In 2004, however, the singer Mario leapt atop the Hot 100 for nine weeks with Ne-Yo’s “Let Me Love You.” Before the single had relinquished No. 1, he got a phone call from Def Jam’s Tina Davis (of later Chris Brown infamy).
What did his debut sound like when someone finally released it?
A more traditional, classicist idea of R&B. Ne-Yo’s persona, then and now—the sympathetic man airing romance’s frustrations—was an unusual one by the 2000s. His breakthrough single, 2006’s chart-topping “So Sick,” is built around gentle harp pluckings and understated handclaps: “I’m so sick of love songs, so sick of tears / So done with wishing you were still here / Said I’m so sick of love songs, so sad and slow / So why can’t I turn off the radio?” Ne-Yo’s smooth, sweet voice rarely turns aggressive.
He’s a nice guy, then?
Famously so. That doesn’t mean he’s bloodless: “Addicted” promised that “I’m not addicted to sex / But girl if you lay with me / You just might be,” and when Ne-Yo was dropped from an R. Kelly tour after only two shows as the opening act, he successfully sued Kells’ promoter for $700 000 in damages. (The elder star responded with leaked track “I’m a Beast,” which came as close to being a diss as is possible when you don’t name any names.) But, well, he did call his third and best album Year of the Gentleman. The music critic Michaelangelo Matos wrote: “It’s grown and sexy because Ne-Yo sounds like an actual grown-up—someone who’s thought about what relationships mean, how they work, what goes wrong with them, and just which angle he might take on it for his next song.” And the acknowledged influence of Michael Jackson on his vocals didn’t hurt.
Who does he usually work with?
The Norwegian-American production team Stargate are frequent collaborators—they were involved with Rihanna’s “Rude Boy,” the Beyonce/Shakira duet “Beautiful Liar” and Katy Perry’s “Firework,” not to mention four tracks on Year of the Gentleman alone. Ne-Yo’s written for Ri-Ri a few times himself (“Unfaithful,” “Russian Roulette” and “Take a Bow” are all credited to the man with the carefully tilted hat). He’s also a frequent “feat.” of rappers who want soulful hooks on a would-be crossover hit. Ne-Yo sang the chorus of Ghostface Killah’s “Back Like That,” 50 Cent’s “Baby By Me” and Rick Ross’ “Super High,” though none of them actually approached the top 10. Too bad: that last single is a very glossy throwback to '70s grooves, with its guest star doing his best Curtis Mayfield.
And what’s he been up to lately?
Ne-Yo’s fourth LP, Libra Scale, came out in late 2010. It’s been a commercial disappointment, possibly because of its baffling, comics-inspired storyline; singles “Beautiful Monster,” “Champagne Life” and “One in a Million” all failed to crack the Top 40. It’s a less subtle example of eccentricity than Year of the Gentleman, where Ne-Yo rhymed “pity party” with “calamari” and channelled that all-consuming craftsmanship into his best ballad yet, “Part of the List.” The very obsessiveness that makes the song so great (“Touching your face / Invading your space”) simultaneously implies a reason for his unnamed lover’s exit. Don’t cry too much for Ne-Yo, though: he’s reportedly vying to make a country album with Lady Gaga. And he has a supporting role in the upcoming blockbuster Battle: Los Angeles.
Yeah, so, why “Ne-Yo,” anyway? Is it a reference to—
The Matrix? Yes. Producer Big D started calling him that in the studio one day and made it stick through sheer repetition. Apparently Ne-Yo sees music as Keanu Reeves sees virtual reality. He prefers fedoras and Mad Men suits to leather trenchcoats, though.