Tue, 27 Jan 2009 08:13:40
It may be a tad surprising, but modern R&B superstar Ne-Yo loves cartoons. "I only watch cartoons," he laughs. "I love Boondocks, Family Guy, Aqua Teen Hunger Force and pretty much anything else on Adult Swim." Who said "swag" and animation are mutually exclusive anyway?
Ne-Yo took the modern notion of swagger to the next level on his Grammy nominated album, Year of the Gentleman. He gave R&B a dose of class and elegance over propulsive Euro club beats, crafting his own bold sound. Year of the Gentleman lit up the charts—and the dance floors—and Ne-Yo rightfully deserves his Grammy nod for "Album of the Year." He spoke to ARTISTdirect.com in this exclusive interview for our Grammy mini-site about being a gentleman, the possibility of a 21st century Rat Pack, his acting career and why animated shows are the best.
In your opinion, what is it about Year of the Gentleman that's captivated so many people—including Grammy voters?
With this album, my ultimate goal was to make something for everybody. I know they say that you shouldn't try to please everybody because it's impossible, but I guess I set an impossible goal for myself. I just really wanted to put together an album that the R&B lover could enjoy, the pop music lover could enjoy, the alternative music lover could enjoy and the techno music lover could enjoy. I wanted to make something that would really eliminate all of these damn genres all over the place. I always say there are two sounds: good music and bad music. I think I accomplished it. If I didn't accomplish it, I know I came damn close. There was a lot of skepticism about some of the choices that I made on this record because I was obviously trying new things. I was stepping out of my comfort zone a little bit. People were concerned that I was walking away from R&B, which, by the way, is something that could never happen. R&B is my foundation; it's where I come from. I'm really appreciative that people allowed me to maintain my artistry and keep things interesting.
You adopted an old school aesthetic, but the sound is very fresh, modern and new. There are some European influences, and there's that old Frank Sinatra vibe too.
Yeah, absolutely! My whole thing is pulling from when it was the most real. Growing up in Las Vegas, I had a lot of access to old footage of Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and the whole Rat Pack. That whole era felt so much more real to me than [the modern style and music] do now. There was something about the "swag" that these men had. "Swag" is a word we use now, but back then it was "charisma"—their stage presence and their charm. There was something about them. I was actually having a conversation with somebody else about this earlier today. There's a difference between being on stage and just being hype for 50 minutes. Jumping all over the place trying to get the crowd to be hype with you and true stage presence aren't the same. The Rat Pack had stage presence. Frank Sinatra could stand in one place the whole time he was on stage, and he'd have people eating out of the palm of his hand. It was about stage presence, charisma, style and swag. Those are things you don't see a lot of nowadays. These days, people are going to get on stage, and they're going to dance for 50 minutes. It's cool for the first fifteen, but after awhile, you're like, "C'mon man, you got something else?" There's more to it than that.
Could some kind of 21st century Rat Pack ever exist?
I definitely think it's possible. It would depend on the people involved. I think John Legend could be a part of that. He's an artist who embodies what it is to let his charisma work for him as opposed to his dance moves. He doesn't do that. It is very smooth. I think he could be a part of that. I think Justin Timberlake could add an interesting element to that. That'd be cool. It would just be a matter of the people involved understanding what The Rat Pack was and why they were who they were.
It's something that pop culture really needs!
I could agree with that because, right now, there's a lack of that effortless cool that you used to see back then.
Was "Miss Independent" one of your personal favorites from the album?
That was a personal favorite. It embodies me paying homage to what it is I feel is the most special woman on the face of the planet—the woman that is self-sufficient. Really, I'm talking about a woman that can do it by herself, and that almost makes you want to do it for her. Knowing if, for whatever reason, I could drop the ball, but she could pick it up and keep running, that makes me want to work that much harder for her. That's what I find sexy, so I had to write a song about it.
“There's a lack of that effortless cool that you used to see back then.”
What's up with your acting career?
After I'm done touring, the rest of the year is dedicated to a couple of movies that I've got in the works. One of them is called Red Tails. It's a period piece about the Tuskegee Airmen—the first African American fighter pilots. I think George Lucas is attached to that one. Then there's Venice Beach, which Paul Hunter is directing. We're putting that one together. I want to bring quality entertainment to the world, not just quality music. I'm definitely still writing for a bunch of different people. I did some stuff with Leona Lewis, Monica and I'm about to go in with Usher. I have a new artist of my own. I've got a lot of things going on right now. I have a cartoon coming out on Cartoon Network. It's a cartoon, but it's not one you want to let your little kids watch. It's definitely an animated series, but it's not for the kids! It's something that would probably come on right after Family Guy. It's in that realm right there. It's called What the Bear.
You're taking acting pretty seriously.
I'm trying to do it all. I wanted to spend the money to get the right acting coach so I'm not just the R&B guy trying to act, but an actual actor. It'll never take the place of music. Music will always be in the driver's seat, but if I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it right. I want to be in some roles that you may not even know it's me. In Red Tails, I play a character named Smoky who's got a deep southern accent and chews tobacco.
Are you a big cartoon guy?
I'm something of a cartoon fiend, if I do say so myself. I've been watching cartoons since I was a kid, and I still watch cartoons. As a matter of fact, the only things I watch on TV are cartoons and music videos. That's pretty much it. I've been drawing and painting pretty much as long as I've been singing. I drew the original characters for the cartoon and came up with the idea. I actually wrote the first four episodes. I told my management that I wanted to get a hold of Seth Green. He had a lot to do with Robot Chicken, and I was a big fan of that show. I wanted to pitch my show to him, but instead of him, I got his two partners. They basically walked me into Cartoon Network and showed me how to put together the pitch for the cartoon and everything. It looks like we're going to get that out maybe in the middle of the year.
What's it about?
It's about a girl named Rufus who lives in a small town. She has four friends—four bears from another dimension. They're four of the most foul-mouthed, mean bears on the face of the planet. It's about the trouble they get her into while she's trying to survive high school. It's funny. I surprised myself with this one, and I think people are going to enjoy it.