Three-time Grammy Award®-winning artist Ne-Yo was explaining the genesis of his new album title, R.E.D., an acronym for Realizing Every Dream. “It came from me stepping outside myself, looking at my life as it is today and realizing that every dream I’ve had from the day I decided I wanted to do music, that I wanted my life to be about music, every dream that I’ve had from then til now, if I haven’t realized it by now, I’m definitely on the way to realizing it.”
R.E.D., released September 2012, is Ne-Yo’s fifth studio album for the Universal Music Group (UMG). It is also his first album for the newly revitalized Motown Records after seven megasuccessful years and four RIAA gold and platinum albums as a core member of Island Def Jam Music Group. Adding to the R.E.D. album’s provenance is Ne-Yo’s appointment (announced January 2012) as the new Senior Vice President of A&R for Motown, a coveted role at one of America’s most important and prestigious blue-chip record labels. In yet another new dream role, Ne-Yo will be working alongside industry great Barry Weiss, Chairman & CEO of Universal Republic and Island Def Jam Motown “I’m beyond flattered that they felt I was a person who could be helpful in reestablishing Motown,” Ne-Yo says. “What put me over the edge was Barry Weiss’s overall belief in me, his belief that I could be an integral part of this revitalization. Maybe he sees a greatness in me that I haven’t realized in myself yet. If the executive is the next step, then so be it. It’s just another set of dreams, another set of goals for me to move towards.”
Becoming an actor was never one of Ne-Yo’s desires, even though his stage name derives from a recording studio engineer’s observation, more than a decade ago, that he perceives music the way Neo perceived the Matrix. Nevertheless, in 2008, after the triumph of his third album, Year Of The Gentleman reverberated around the world, Ne-Yo was cast in two big budget, major studio blockbusters that took him away from music for most of 2009, during their back-to-back shooting schedules: director Jonathan Liebesman’s Battle: Los Angeles (Columbia Pictures), which opened in 2011; and George Lucas’ World War II epic Red Tails (20th Century Fox), the chronicle of the Tuskegee Airmen, which opened in 2012.
“One thing I learned about acting,” he says, “it’s actually very similar to music. It’s all about the level of passion and the level of emotion that you put into what you’re doing, that’s gonna make what you’re doing good. You can hear it when a singer receives that anointing to where he’s not even in his body anymore, the music has completely taken over. It’s the same with acting, you can see when an actor has become his character. You must have a very strong understanding of who you are in order to become somebody else. I’m still a student to the music, and I’m still a student to acting, but it’s another transition, another step, another group of dreams and goals to set.” Ne-Yo’s status has also enabled his company, Compound Entertainment, to enter into a partnership with worldwide spirits and wine giant Pernod Ricard to develop Malibu Red, their popular coconut-flavored rum infused with silver tequila. “They made me Chief Creative Director, I designed the bottle, and I wrote a song called ‘Burnin’ Up’ for the brand. We shot a video which they edited for a commercial, and it’s doing really well, I’m excited about it. Now I want to take Malibu Red and make it a household name in clubs, to be one of those specific bottles that must be at your table. Another transition, another step, another group of dreams.”
Born into a family of musicians in Arkansas on October 18, 1979, Shaffer C. Smith, aka Ne-Yo, was a youngster when his mother relocated to Las Vegas in hopes of a better life. A natural-born storyteller, Ne-Yo cited Prince, Marvin Gaye, the Rat Pack, and Stevie Wonder in his list of favorite entertainers. After a couple of stints in local groups, Ne-Yo was astute enough to see the potential in song publishing. His talents as a songwriter soon began to blossom with cut after cut on major artists’ albums and singles, including Mary J. Blige, B2K, Faith Evans, Musiq, and Christina Milian.
The big break took place in 2004, when R&B singer-actor Mario scored a left-field #1 hit with “Let Me Love You,” which Ne-Yo co-wrote with the track’s producer Scott Storch. The song stayed at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for nine weeks, and became (at the time) the most-played song in radio history, with 189.5 million audience in its peak week. It finished out 2004 as the #1 most-played song of the year at radio, and also became one of the top-selling ringtone downloads of all time. Ne-Yo’s name was on everyone’s A-list, and in 2005, (then) Def Jam president Shawn Carter (Jay-Z) and Island Def Jam Music Group Chairman Antonio ‘L.A.’ Reid succeeded in signing Ne-Yo to the label. He was quickly cast in the Paramount Pictures sequel Save The Last Dance 2 and wrapped up filming towards the end of the year. In late December, after completing a sold-out, critically acclaimed tour with fellow newcomer John Legend, Ne-Yo’s single “So Sick” began to catch fire, eventually hitting #1 on the Hot 100 and #1 in the UK in early 2006. (“So Sick” was actually his second Def Jam single, the follow-up to his 2005 debut “Stay” featuring Peedi Crakk.)
IN MY OWN WORDS
With the meteoric radio and Internet success of the RIAA platinum “So Sick,” the first of his many hits with Norwegian producers Stargate, and its video directed by Martin Linss, Ne-Yo’s debut album In My Own Words (released February 2006) became the first big chart story of the new year. It debuted at #1 Soundscan on the Billboard 200 albums chart, with first week sales of more than 301,000 copies. In the newly embattled CD marketplace of 2006, shipping RIAA platinum was an unprecedented achievement in anyone’s book. Ne-Yo soon got his first taste of television network variety and talk-show appearances – the full monty of The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, The Late Show with David Letterman, The Late Late Show with Craig Ferguson, The Tyra Banks Show, Live with Regis & Kelly, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and Showtime at the Apollo, not to mention Teen People’s “25 Under 25” special, and Def Jam label-mate LL Cool J’s “Custom Concert” on the Oxygen Network.
“He’s not just a smooth crooner. He’s also a smooth songwriter,” wrote the New York Times, citing the influence of http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/j/michael_jackson/index.html?inline=nyt-per http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/j/michael_jackson/index.html?inline=nyt-per Michael Jackson on Ne-Yo. The album won 3-star rave reviews in USA Today (a “soulful solo debut”) and People (who praised his “lithe, silky tenor ”). “His attention to detail is key,” wrote Vibe magazine. “But it’s Ne-Yo’s natural ability to bring together the key ingredients that proves he’s a musician wise beyond his 23 [sic] years.”
By the time summer arrived, Ne-Yo was on to his fourth single – the RIAA platinum “Sexy Love” (#2 R&B, #7 pop), produced by Stargate, follow-up to “Stay,” “So Sick,” and “When You’re Mad” (#4 R&B, #15 pop). Ne-Yo booked out on the summer’s hottest outing, the all-star “Up Close & Personal Tour” headlining Chris Brown, Juelz Santana, Lil’ Wayne, and Dem Franchise Boyz, a two-month, 28-city coast-to-coast schedule starting in August. One month after its conclusion in October, Ne-Yo was back on the road in November, with the eight-city annual “Ruff & Ready, Yung & Sexy: Scream Tour 5,” presented by BET and co-starring Omarion, Yung Joc, Pretty Ricky, Mario, Jibbs, Sammie, and One Chance.
2006 wrapped up with the annual Billboard Music Awards broadcast live from the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, as Ne-Yo won for Male R&B/Hip-Hop Artist of the Year, his first major award. He was also a finalist in three other categories, including Male Artist of the Year, New Artist of the Year, and R&B/Hip-Hop Single of the Year for “So Sick.” Three days after the awards, December 7th was officially named “Ne-Yo Day” in Las Vegas, as (among many highlights) Ne-Yo received a proclamation and the Key To The City from Mayor Oscar Goodman, and congressional recognition from Congresswoman Shelly Berkley. At the Doolittle Community Center assembly, 25 youths also received special pre-Christmas gifts from Ne-Yo, provided by the Las Vegas Chapter of 100 Black Men Of America.
BECAUSE OF YOU
In January, it was announced that Beyoncé’s hit single, “Irreplaceable,” co-written by Ne-Yo, had bested the all-time Nielsen- BDS audience record of Mario’s “Let Me Love You.” Thus, Ne-Yo had now co-written two of the most played radio hits in history. At the same time, Ne-Yo earned his first Grammy Award® nomination, for In My Own Words as Best Contemporary R&B Album.
The new pre-album cycle began in February, when Ne-Yo’s next single, “Because Of You” (produced by Stargate) earned his highest Rhythm chart debut to that point in his career, entering at #29-bullet. In March, Ne-Yo officially announced that the new album would be titled Because Of You, named after the RIAA gold single. “It makes the most sense,” he said at the time. “It’s because of the people that inspire me to make music. Because of the love of the music. Because of the fans. Because of you, that I do what I do.” Ne-Yo went on to perform and judge at BET’s “Spring Bling” later that month. Also in March, at the annual Soul Train Music Awards, Ne-Yo received the Coca-Cola Award For Best R&B/Soul Or Rap New Artist.
Because Of You (released May 2007) became Ne-Yo’s second consecutive album to debut at #1 Soundscan on the Billboard 200 albums chart. USA Today raved, “Ne-Yo’s sunny, fluid tenor and the wistfully romantic, infectious tunes he co-writes will bring fans of a certain age back to a time in pop music and pop culture that seems in retrospect endearingly guileless.” Before the month was over, Ne-Yo was back on the road for a five-week, 18-city nationwide tour in support of the new album, with Trey Songz as his opening act. News also arrived at this time that Ne-Yo had founded the Compound Foundation, a 501 c-3 non-profit organization which is committed to increasing awareness about the status of children in the child welfare system, and supporting and partnering with residential care facilities and independent group homes through programs aimed at teaching entrepreneurship and life skills that will empower them to become productive, successful, independent adults.
“Because Of You” was followed up the charts by another album track, “Do You,” which rose to #3 on the R&B side. At the UK’s 13th annual MOBO (Music Of Black Origin) Awards in September – the only televised European Awards Show solely dedicated to urban music and culture – Ne-Yo won for Best Song (“Because Of You”) and Best R&B Act. In November, Ne-Yo joined R. Kelly’s massive two-month 30-city fall-winter U.S. tour, along with support acts J. Holiday and Keyshia Cole.
YEAR OF THE GENTLEMAN
At the 50th annual Grammy Awards® broadcast in February 2008, in a category that included heavy competition from Akon, Keyshia Cole, Fantasia, and Emily King, it was Ne-Yo who walked away with the prize for Best Contemporary R&B Album, for Because Of You. In addition to winning his first Grammy Award®, Ne-Yo also shared four other nominations that year, including two for his collaboration with Rihanna, “Hate That I Love You” (which he co-wrote), namely Best R&B Song and Best R&B Performance Duo/Group; as well as Best Male R&B Vocal Performance for “Because Of You”; and Record of the Year for Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” (which he co-produced). Rihanna came back strong in the spring with “Take A Bow,” #1 pop/ #1 R&B/ #1 UK, co-written and co-produced by Ne-Yo with Stargate.
With the Grammy Awards® behind him, it was time to focus on the upcoming new album, and its first single pick, “Closer” (produced by Stargate). In April, coinciding with the new release, Ne-Yo kicked off a two-month, 32-city tour of the U.S. and Canada with Alicia Keys. “Closer” rose to #7 R&B, #1 Dance, #1 in the UK, and was certified RIAA platinum.
It was followed that summer by “Miss Independent,” co-written by Ne-Yo with Stargate, who produced. The video for Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Song,” shot in Santa Monica by director Chris Robinson and featuring Gabriel Union, Keri Hilson, Lauren London, and Trey Songz, was reportedly themed after the hit movie Boomerang. The video helped Ne-Yo attain his first Billboard #1 R&B hit. The RIAA platinum “Miss Independent” also provided a perfect launch for Year Of the Gentleman (released September 2008), heralded by a special outdoor release day performance on NBC’s The Today Show.
There were several philosophies put forth by Ne-Yo in explanation of the new album concept. One was an ode to the style, respect and grace of the Rat Pack: “For me,” the Las Vegas native said, “the sharpness of Sammy and Sinatra is the kind of style I strive for in clothes and music. Year of the Gentleman is named in honor of those guys.” There was also its blend of distinctive European sound and American Soul. “As a songwriter as well as a singer,” he said, “I think it’s important to cast my words wide. I have traveled the world, and I want to bring that across in the material. Year of the Gentleman is a worldly album.”
Ne-Yo told MTV News that he was “trying to take it back to where you couldn’t walk out of the house unless you looked your best… and everything is right from top to bottom. Not saying it has to be a suit, ’cause clothes don’t make the man – it’s the attitude and person. The music needs to personify that.” The ‘attitude’ was underscored when Ne-Yo was named as Hennessy cognac’s first “Artistry Concert Tour” curator for their third annual concert series, in conjunction with their “Flaunt Your Taste” ad campaign. Ne-Yo not only brought his own class and urban style to the stage, but influenced all aspects of the tour, from selecting the other performers on the bill each night, to crafting the concert design elements and atmosphere.
Year of the Gentleman debuted at a solid, closely fought #2 Soundscan on the Billboard 200 albums chart, #2 in the UK, and #1 in Japan. The album yielded a third single in November, “Mad,” again co-written and co-produced by Ne-Yo with Stargate. When the Grammy Award® nominations were announced in December, Ne-Yo led the pack with six nominations, including Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Song, both for “Miss Independent,” winning in both categories; as well as Album Of the Year and Best Contemporary R&B Album for his third consecutive RIAA platinum best-seller, Year of the Gentleman.
Aside from his month-long, 17-city U.S. tour in February 2009, featuring Musiq and/or Jazmine Sullivan as opening act(s) on various dates, Ne-Yo devoted most of the year to pre-production and shooting of Battle: Los Angeles and Red Tails. (Ne-Yo actually attended grueling boot-camp to prepare for his role as a U.S. Marine in Battle: Los Angeles.) Back in Las Vegas at year’s-end, Ne-Yo hosted the Compound Foundation’s third annual pre-Christmas Giving Tour, in which bikes and toys were provided during the holiday season to more than 400 youths (identified by local agencies), who were living in residential care and foster care in state custody. The youths participated in 3-on-3 basketball games, and group dance competitions, and there were guest DJs, guest speakers, and performances from local youth artists.
The first sign of a new album from Ne-Yo coming in 2010 was “Beautiful Monster,” a brand new track once more co-written and co-produced by Ne-Yo with Stargate. MySpace Music worked with their international teams in the UK, Australia and New Zealand to world premiere the track on May 25th, resulting in millions of instant fan impressions worldwide. The immediate result was Ne-Yo’s third #1 UK chart hit.
When the eagerly anticipated new album’s second single, “Champagne Life” arrived in July, it was decided to world premiere two full-length nine-minute videos for both “Champagne Life” and “Beautiful Monster” on BET’s “106 & Park.” It marked the first time that “106 & Park” had ever hosted a double video premiere of such lengthy clips, and clearly reflected the impact that Ne-Yo’s filmmaking experience in 2009 was having on his music. After a sizzling performance of “Beautiful Monster” on FOX-tv’s So You Think You Can Dance, Ne-Yo traveled to London’s swanky Hospital venue one week later to preview tracks from the new album. Tastemakers had a chance to sample the album’s narrative, threading through each of the songs, as explained by Ne-Yo: The story centers on the misadventures of ‘The Gentlemen,’ the trio of Jerome (played by Ne-Yo), Clyde and Leroy. After encountering a mysterious figure, the three are granted everything they could ever want – money, fame, cars, girls…and superpowers; the only catch being that they cannot fall in love. For Clyde and Leroy, the pre-condition is easy. Not so for Jerome (Ne-Yo), who falls for Pretti Sinclair, a vivacious no-nonsense stunner. He captures her heart and they sleep together – which is when she contracts a strain of his super-powers and suffers an adverse reaction that effectively drives her crazy.
The plot thickens as she is transformed into ‘Diamond Eye,’ a monster who sets about destroying the Gotham-like city. At this point, the mysterious figure re-appears. Disappointed in Jerome, he offers him an ultimatum: allow Diamond Eye and Pretty Sinclair both to die, and the city is saved – or allow Pretty Sinclair to live and reverse all the damage Diamond Eye has done, but Jerome must die. We are left with Jerome weighing up the decision on a ‘Libra Scale’…hence the album’s title.
The cinematic attributes of Libra Scale (released November 2010 in the U.S., Ne-Yo’s first new album in over two years) clearly meshed with the new breed of superhero movies, and Ne-Yo caused a tumult when he showed up at Comic Con in New York. The album hit Top 10 in the U.S. and was certified RIAA gold. “Libra Scale was a science project, so to speak,” said Ne-Yo. “It was me being so excited about all the things I learned on the sets of these movies, that I tried to take that and bring it into what I do in music.” In October, Ne-Yo debuted another album track, “One In a Million” on ABC’s top-rated Dancing With the Stars.
The month before the release of Libra Scale, it was announced that Ne-Yo had entered into a joint venture agreement to bring Compound Entertainment and his newly-formed record label Black 2 Black to the Island Def Jam Music Group. The first artist signed to the Black 2 Black joint venture label was Loren Allred, an accomplished pianist, singer and songwriter based in Salt Lake City.
R.E.D. “Every song on the album is a true story,” Ne-Yo establishes at the outset, “be it true for me, or for somebody close enough to me who didn’t mind me telling the story. But everything written about on this album came from an actual event and an actual person’s experience.”
“Lazy Love,” for example, the first single, “is my experience, basically a song about being so enthralled with another person that the outside world just ceases to exist, nothing exists but you and that person. It’s time for you to get up and go to work but you don’t care. The doorbell’s ringing, your phone’s ringing off the hook, but you don’t hear it because you’re so into this person. There’s just an air of utter laziness that comes over you that you just cannot get red of, and you don’t want to, because you love this lazy, so that’s the title, ‘Lazy Love.’” “Let Me Love You,” the second single, grew from a line of verse written by Sia, “Let me love you, and I will love you/ Until you learn to love yourself.”
Ne-Yo became infatuated with the line and its powerful implications, “it goes beyond the realm of just a relationship between man and woman, this is relationship with self, me, myself and I and the threesome that happens there, and understanding what it is to love yourself, what it is to allow another person to get close enough to you to teach you how to love yourself. This is a song that I feel, if done the right way and taken care of the right way, could help the world!”
(How Ne-Yo came to be associated with Australian electronica star Sia, known for her vocals with the UK group Zero 7, is a marvelously tangled story that involves his music publishing company and (of course) Stargate, but suffice to it was a professional hookup that yielded some of the most fascinating music Ne-Yo has ever tracked.)
Guest artists are rarities on any Ne-Yo album, as his fans know, so it is a treat to have a verse by Fabolous on “Should Be You.” Ne-Yo’s short form intro to the song in front of one group of fans said all that needed to be said: “This is a song about being with somebody and wishing you were with someone else. There’s a little more to it than that, but I don’t want to get too cool for the room, or too deep.” Ne-Yo is a fan of the kind of heartbreak and pain that inhabit country music, and “She Is” (originally intended for Libra Scale) is a classic lyric that would not be out of place on a Faith Hill or Carrie Underwood record. “The thing I love about country,” Ne-Yo says, “is there’s always a story, a beginning, a middle, and an end. ‘She Is’ is about a man reluctant to fall in love, he’s taken this love that he’s found for this woman and turned it into a means to blame. ‘Caught up in a whirlwind, and no one can help me/ Who’s responsible? She is. Everything’s all her fault/ Now I’m in love and I didn’t want to be/ And all because of she.’” Top country songwriter-collaborator Luke Laird devised the heavy kick-drum, when “I told him that I wanted to do something that had a Country feel but is still in my world too. The good Lord willing, Tim McGraw will get on the radio with a remix and we’ll perform it at the Country music awards one day. Another dream. Another goal.” Ne-Yo is also an avowed Beatles fan and “Alone With You,” produced by Salaam Remi subconsciously channeled the kind of melodies that Paul McCartney and John Lennon have given to the world. The song is dedicated to Ne-Yo’s two-year old daughter Maddy (Madilyn Grace) who cried and cried as a newborn and could not be consoled until her mother randomly played this track off the iPod and Maddy was instantly quieted. “To this day, whenever Maddy falls into that place where there’s no consoling her, no comforting, no satisfying, we’ll put this song on and Maddy will be silent, she loves this record.” Remi didn’t get the Fab Four vibe at first, but as Ne-Yo led him through the track, enlightenment was soon provided.
“So with that being said,” Ne-Yo explains, “I decided to make that song an ode not only to my daughter, but also to a group that inspired me very, very much in their mastery of melody, that is, the Beatles,” echoing his own guru, Michael Jackson’s Fab Four devotion.
Which brings Ne-Yo full circle from the Beatles back to their Motown roots, which he shares with his millions of fans and followers on both sides of the Atlantic, a place where musical genres are blurred, and there’s only one chart: great music. “That’s my goal for Motown, to try to get back to a place where there is no specific genre placed on the music. You like it because it’s good, not because it’s a pop record, not because it’s a dance record, not because it’s an R&B record, but because there’s something in the song that touches your heart, that touches your soul, that makes you feel something. That’s all I’ve ever tried to do with the music I put out, is make somebody feel something. With so much shallow, hollow music out there today, if I’m the only person making people feel something, then I’ll be in a good place.”