Mon, 24 Mar 2008 11:09:45
Ne-Yo's got it goin' on. Grammy award, check. Platinum plaques, check. A-List rolodex of guest appearances, check. However, he still wants more. So, what else is there? "I want to bring back what it is to be a 'gentleman' in R&B," exclaims the singer with a devout confidence in his voice. Not only does Ne-Yo bring "gentleman" back, he redefines the term for the 21st Century. The soulful R&B star blends funk flourishes and old school swagger for a sound that's distinctly debonair.
His croon yielded a hit debut in the form of 2006's In My Own Words. The follow-up, Because of You, equally channeled Prince and classic R&B, further whetting fans' appetites for Ne-yo's sexy, soulful sound. His voice has also turned up on defining cuts for music's most respected names, ranging from Rihanna to Ghostface Killah. Ne-Yo also never stops working or composing. Currently, he's been traveling back and forth between studios in Atlanta, New York and Los Angeles crafting his new offering, Year of the Gentleman, tentatively due out this summer. He's also gearing up for a tour alongside soul sensation Alicia Keys. On an odd day off, Ne-Yo kicks it at his Atlanta home, and gives us some insight into how to be a gentleman in this day and age.
Because of You felt like a big evolution from In My Own Words. How do you feel you've grown or changed between those two albums?
On In My Own Words, I was trying to find myself to a degree. I knew who I was, to a certain extent, and I knew what I wanted to do, but I wasn't exactly sure how it was going to be perceived on that record. A lot of the R&B that was going on then was hip hop-oriented. It wasn’t the R&B that my mom used to play all day every day, when I was growing up. So, I wanted to take it back to that. On the second album, I moved around a little bit. Before the first album, I had never left the United States. By the next record, I had been to Europe and Japan—just all over the place. Definitely, I found new ways to say stuff, and I had a new outlook on the world, in general. So that's where the whole vibe of where Because of You came from. It was still very much relationship-based, because I feel that love is one of the few things on this planet that will never, ever go out of style. I write from personal experience anyway. So pretty much anything that is going on in my personal life is what's going to be on the record. I grew up between the two records. On this third album though, I've grown up even more. I'm not lying about my age anymore. I actually think that getting older is sexy. I think it's very sexy to age and mature. That's what this third album is going to be. It's more me growing as an artist and as a person.
The growth has reflected in your work so far. What's coming up next?
I asked everyone to open up their minds a little bit with the second album, because I definitely took some chances on some of the songs, especially on tracks like "Sex with My Ex" and "Angel." It was stuff that people didn't see coming from me. I'm going to take it even a step further on this next album. It’s going to be called Year of the Gentleman. The madness behind that involves me trying to bring back "what it is to be a gentleman" within this R&B game. No disrespect to anybody in the game right now. Let me clear that up. You look at R&B today, and you can't really tell the singers from the rappers. Everybody looks alike. Everybody's got their jeans hanging off their ass, their big chains and their t-shirts, whatever the case may be. When you look back to the days of Nat King Cole, The Temptations or even The Rat Pack, for one, you couldn't get on stage without your suit being pressed nicely and your tie being straight. That's what it was to be an R&B singer and to be an entertainer. You got on stage, and you were dressed to the nines. You walk through the room, and all eyes were on you. You were the coolest guy in the room, without trying to be the coolest guy in the room. I'm trying to bring that essence back with the look and feel of this record. I spent a lot of time in Europe last year, and the first single on the album is definitely inspired by that. It's called "Closer," and it has a dance, trance-type feel to it. Pretty much all the music over in Europe is like that. They'll put that four-on-the-floor beat over "Mary Had a Little Lamb," if you let them [laughs]. You feel it. It's energy, and it's sexy. It's kind of dark, and I dig it. So I gave it a try. It's a little different for me, but not too much. My voice is my voice, and I can't change that. The feel of the record is a little different from what I normally do. So again, I'm going to ask people to open up their minds when they listen to this third album, because again, you might not see it coming.
It sounds like you're bringing back that old vibe, because nobody's keeping it classy. It's refreshing you aim to do that.
I think that the integrity is missing from R&B right now. I think people are so concerned with this "bad boy” image—not "Bad Boy" like Diddy and them. It's the image with your jeans sagging, your tennis shoes untied and whatever else the case may be. Nobody's clean anymore! One of the reasons I looked up to Kanye West when he came out was because Kanye brought back being clean in hip hop. Everybody was all gritty and dirty, and it just didn’t feel good anymore. In my personal opinion, that clean-cut-dapper thing that used to be in R&B isn't there anymore, and I'm going to try and bring it back.
That swagger transcends boundaries, and you can appeal to so many more people, because it's not "gangsta" anymore. It's refined.
Very true. It should be really good. It's coming along really nicely so far. The sound is very worldly. In some songs, it might even go over the heads of people looking for a strictly urban record. It's so much more than that.
Would you say you're telling stories with these songs?
Yeah, I think that everybody loves a good story. A lot of entertainment is based off of telling a story. I think there's so much going on in this world. How could you write a song about nothing? How could you not tell a story in a song? Who wants to hear about a car, sex or money every record? There's so much stuff you can write about. There's so much on this planet. Writing about nothing doesn't make any sense to me. That's why I love country music. There's always a story. There's always a beginning, middle and an end, always. You can almost see the song while it's being sung. I love that. So that's what I try to do with my music. I'm trying to create something that's going to appeal to more than just me.
Are you going further back in terms of influences?
I'll say that I'm not so much old school with the sound. When I say "worldly," it's not going to be strictly BET. I'm going BET, VH1 and even Fuse. There's some stuff that urban radio might miss, because it's going to be so far out. There will be stuff like electric guitar and more instrumentation. Think Billy Joel, The Beatles, Ne-yo and John Mayer—something like that. It's a sound that's going to reach each person. I'm not making black records. I'm not making white records. I'm making good records. I'm making music that everyone's going to be able to get into in some way.
Bringing back the old school R&B sound with the funky electric guitars should really switch it up.
Absolutely! This third record is going to have a lot of that. I'm an artist, I've got to grow, and I've got to expand. The music is somewhere else for me. It's going to be difficult to explain. I think listening to it is going to be the best explanation.
You’ve always done great collaborations. Are there any guest appearances on the new album?
As of now, we're still in "talk" mode. We're discussing. I've talked to John Mayer about doing some stuff. I've spoken to Natasha Bedingfield about doing some stuff. I've been in conversations with Akon and Patrick Stump from Fall Out Boy. There are a few people that I've talked to, but nothing has come together just yet. I'm really looking forward to seeing what happens if John Mayer and I get together. His world of music and my world of music aren't extremely far away from each other, but they're far enough to where bringing the two together is going to be extremely interesting. If it happens, it's definitely going to be interesting.