By: Michael D. McClellan | He’s an R&B superstar, his résumé dotted with Grammy Awards, platinum albums and number one hits. He’s written songs for some of the biggest names in the music industry, with writing credits that touch artists such as Mary J. Blige, Destiny’s Child, Faith Evans and the incomparable Celine Dion (more on that later). He’s also an actor, an executive, and the driving force behind a charity that enhances the well-being of youth growing up in foster care and group homes. Yes, it’s safe to say that Shaffer Chimere Smith – Ne-Yo to the rest of us – is one immensely talented and equally busy dude, but that only begins to scratch the surface of the Ne-Yo landscape, a vast expanse of creative and socially conscious intellect that few in the business can match.
To sit down with Ne-Yo is to get a crash course in what it takes to be a true professional in the entertainment biz. The man is nothing if not exacting, a stickler for perfection who yearns to make great music, and that comes across immediately. It’s clear that he’s not in it for the money – so when he says that his wealth is a byproduct of his success, he comes across as the genuine article. It’s also clear that part of him could care less about the trappings of fame, although he acknowledges that most artists, including himself, are all narcissistic to a certain degree. Refreshingly, Ne-Yo is as down to earth and as ordinary as a superstar might come, a fact reinforced by the way he makes small talk before we start the interview. Suddenly, it feels less like a Q&A session and more like chill time with Ne-Yo, the red-hot R&B performer with the down-to-earth sensibilities.
Born on October 18, 1982 in Camden, Arkansas, to musician parents, Ne-Yo spent his childhood in Las Vegas, after his mother separated from his father. He later auditioned for the Las Vegas Academy, a magnet high school where students claim a “major” pertaining to performing arts, visual arts, or foreign languages, and it was here that he found himself drawn to his first group, writing songs as a member of the R&B ensemble, Envy. While the group’s existence was short-lived, his passion for song-writing continued unabated. As we settle into the interview, I stare at a list of hit songs that includes Beyoncé’s Irreplaceable, and I can’t help but wonder how Ne-Yo works his magic.
“I usually start with the melody first, and then fit the lyrics into the structure of the song,” he says quickly. “But really, there’s no right or wrong way to do it. I’ve actually done it the completely opposite way, where I’ve come up with the lyrics first. And anything can literally become a song – I’ve actually seen a phrase on a cereal box that’s inspired a song. It’s really about how the inspiration hits you that day.”
Writing is only part of what makes Ne-Yo tick. A performer at heart, in 2000 he’d managed to catch the attention of Columbia Records, who quickly signed him to his first record deal. It appeared to be the breakthrough he’d been waiting for, but the label dropped him before he could release his first studio album. The setback didn’t keep him down for long; R&B singer Marques Houston listened to Ne-Yo’s song That Girl, which was slated for the album, and decided to record his own version. Released as a single in 2003, That Girl was an instant hit and put Ne-Yo squarely on the music map.
Listening to him talk, I wonder: Does it bother him that another artist was able to capitalize on a song he’d originally written for himself?
Ne-Yo: “People ask me all the time if I have a problem with the fact that I haven’t written a song for myself that has been as big as some of the songs that I’ve written for other people. The answer is that I don’t. It’s still me, as far as I’m concerned. Everybody knows the Beyoncé record Irreplaceable, but everybody also knows that Ne-Yo wrote that record. So as long as people appreciate the blood, sweat and tears that I put into a record then I’ve served my purpose and I’m happy.”
“People ask me all the time if I have a problem with the fact that I haven’t written a song for myself that has been as big as some of the songs that I’ve written for other people. The answer is that I don’t. It’s still me, as far as I’m concerned. Everybody knows the Beyoncé record Irreplaceable, but everybody also knows that Ne-Yo wrote that record. So as long as people appreciate the blood, sweat and tears that I put into a record then I’ve served my purpose and I’m happy.” – Ne-Yo
Working without a label and yet undeterred, Ne-Yo continued to write for other artists while laying the groundwork for his own career as a solo R&B performer. His big break came in 2004, when he wrote Let Me Love You for another R&B singer, Mario. The song was melodic and sweetly lilting, reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s vintage romantic ballads. And, like a monster hit from the King of Pop himself, Let Me Love You raced up the Billboard Hot 100, landing at Number 1 and staying there for nine consecutive weeks.
For Ne-Yo, how did it feel to have his work compared to one of the greatest performers ever?
“It blows my mind,” he says, “because every R&B performer dreams of being mentioned in the same breath as Michael Jackson. And while it’s flattering, I try my best to be my own person as an entertainer. Will there be comparisons? Definitely – it’s going to happen, because, in my personal opinion, everything is inspired by something else. There is no 100% original thought. The inspiration happens and then the inspiration comes. By no means am I trying to become the next Michael Jackson. There is no next MJ. There will never be another MJ. However, I can pay homage to the person that made it possible for me to be where I am.”
I mention that there were several high-profile artists paying homage to the King of Pop following his death in 2009, including Usher. What effect did the loss of arguably the greatest entertainer ever have on Ne-Yo?
“Michael Jackson’s passing was difficult for me,” Ne-Yo says. “He was such a huge inspiration. He’s one of the reasons I’m doing music. It would have been an incredible experience to work with a genius like that. He had a true vision for what he wanted to do as an artist, and he had the talent to make it happen. I’m just happy that I got to meet him one time before he passed, because it’s one of those memories that will never fade away.”
“Michael Jackson’s passing was difficult for me. He was such a huge inspiration. He’s one of the reasons I’m doing music. It would have been an incredible experience to work with a genius like that. He had a true vision for what he wanted to do as an artist, and he had the talent to make it happen. I’m just happy that I got to meet him one time before he passed, because it’s one of those memories that will never fade away.” – Ne-Yo
Does he feel as if he has to carry the torch, or fill a void left behind by the music legend?
“Now that he’s not here anymore, it not so much a case of me having to carry the torch as it is for me to keep alive what he stood for musically. I think we’ve fallen into a place where melody is somewhat lacking in music today. People hear too much melody or too much harmony, and it kind of goes over their heads. Sometimes it feels as if they don’t understand it. Michael Jackson believed in making music to make people feel good. His stuff was loaded with melody and harmony. Those things are so important, in my opinion – it’s not always about money, or about sex, or whatever the case may be. Sometimes it’s just about a song that makes you feel good. That’s the kind of music that he did, and that’s the kind of music that I try to produce.”
After signing with Def Jam in 2005, Ne-Yo released his first album, In My Own Words, which immediately vaulted to Number 1 on the Billboard 200 and eventually went platinum. The second single from that album, So Sick, reached Number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 that same week. Suddenly, Ne-Yo’s career trajectory was on a seriously upward arc. Not lost on him was the irony that the R&B genre itself had started taking on water, being overran but hip-hop and, to a lesser degree, dance music.
“R&B is suffering as a genre today,” Ne-Yo concedes. “For whatever reason, people making this music have lost touch with what real emotion is. The thing that made those classic R&B records great was that they were heartfelt and real. I feel that R&B is a little shallow today, and a little hollow right now, and that’s why people aren’t connecting to it like they once did. With dance music today, it’s not so much about what’s being said as about what the music is making you feel. It’s about what that driving beat is doing to you. So even if it’s only evoking one specific emotion, at least it’s doing that – there’s an energy with dance music that’s undeniable. R&B performers need to figure out how to bring those emotions back if the genre is going to make a comeback.”
Ne-Yo’s second album, Because of You, was released on May 1, 2007. It promptly shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 200 and, like his debut album, went platinum. Because of You landed Ne-Yo his first Grammy Award, this for Best Contemporary R&B Album. It also helped to cement his reputation as an elite singer / songwriter. But what about owning the stage? Acts like Chris Brown and Usher carried reputations as top tier stage performers. Ne-Yo fans knew that their guy could more than hold his own, but there seemed to be a recognition gap. Does the same hold true today? Does Ne-Yo feel like he gets the recognition he deserves when it comes to performing onstage?
“To be completely honest with you I don’t feel like I do,” he says matter-of-factly. “I’m not going to sit here and cry about it, because I feel like there will come a time when people will recognize me for what I do onstage. All I can do is make sure that every time I set foot on a stage, that I give 200% and leave it out there. If I do that, then I feel that eventually people will understand that. The stage is my second home; that’s where I live, and that’s what I do. They’ll get it in time. I’m not going to chase the world. I’d rather let the world chase me.”
In 2008 Ne-Yo released his third album, Year of the Gentleman, a tip of the hat to old school swag. The heavy hitting hip-hop vibe was everywhere, from its aggressive, angry, in-your-face lyrics to its gritty, from-the-streets roots. Gentleman was an attempt to bring back some of the charm that came from the R&B artists of yesteryear. The album reached Number 2 on the Billboard 200, went platinum, and was nominated for Best Contemporary R&B Album and Album of the Year at the 2009 Grammy Awards. The song Miss Independent peaked at Number 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and earned two Grammys, Best Male R&B Vocal Performance and Best R&B Song.
While appreciative of the Grammys and the recognition, Ne-Yo remained focused on his craft, preferring to make hits rather than headlines. For him, his work is all about substance.
“I understand that fame and celebrity are very trivial nowadays,” he says flatly. “You really don’t have to do anything special or spectacular to be famous anymore. Seriously. Basically, all you have to do is be a train wreck and it’s enough for people to talk about and you’re famous.
“I never wanted my fame or my recognition to be anything about that. I only want people to recognize me for the quality of my music. That’s all I want people to care about – recognition for the quality of my music, and for the blood, sweat and tears that I put into my performances – those are the things I want people to pay attention to, not that Ne-Yo is dating this celebrity girl, or that Ne-Yo just got arrested for whatever.
“I feel that controversy and scandal is gimmicky to a certain respect. And I didn’t want my fame to be gimmicky. I wanted to be valid, I wanted to be real. And I want true respect, as opposed to grabbing for fame or recognition. If I’m not as popular as the guy who gets arrested ten times in a year and ends up being glorified on the cover of a magazine for it, then so be it. Trust me, I’m not tripping.”
It’s a refreshing attitude for sure. It harkens back to the way his first idol, Sammy Davis Jr., conducted himself with the public. As we talk about idols, I ask: Who else has had an impact on the singer whose nickname is taken from the character Neo in The Matrix?
“My idols are Michael Jackson, Sammy Davis Jr., Stevie Wonder and Prince,” he says without hesitation. “Prince is the ultimate performer. Prince is that dude that’s going to get up on that stage, by himself if he has to, and he’s going to hold you in the palm of his hand from start to finish. Like, you literally can’t take your eyes off of that man when he’s onstage. He could just be sitting there, doing absolutely nothing, but you still can’t take your eyes off him.
“And the thing I love about Prince is that he never, ever changed. He is who he is, which is impressive in this business, where people try to make you into something you’re not. Prince said, ‘This is me. I’m going to put on these heels, and I’m going to throw on this shirt with all the frilly on it, and you’re gonna catch up to me – I’m not going to run after y’all. You have to deal with it. You have to catch up to me.’”
“Prince is the ultimate performer. Prince is that dude that’s going to get up on that stage, by himself if he has to, and he’s going to hold you in the palm of his hand from start to finish. Like, you literally can’t take your eyes off of that man when he’s onstage. He could just be sitting there, doing absolutely nothing, but you still can’t take your eyes off him.” – Ne-Yo
Ne-Yo’s fourth album, Libra Scale, was released in 2010. It was an ambitious effort, with a futuristic theme running through the entire album. It represented something of a hiccup for the R&B superstar, in that it was met with lukewarm sales and was dismissed by most critics as overly self-indulgent.
“I knew going in that Libra Scale may not be the most commercially successful record I’d make,” he concedes, meeting the question head-on. “There are a lot of firsts in that record. And in retrospect, I tried to weave the concept across the entire album, whereas Michael Jackson did that with only one song on Thriller. He had an unbelievable video built around the title song, and then the rest of the music stood on its own as great music. If I had a do over, I’d probably follow that same path. The attention span today just doesn’t support something as involved as what I tried to do on Libra Scale.
“But being an artist is about taking chances. You gotta give the fans what they want, and at the same time you’ve gotta be true to yourself, too. If you only give the fans what they want, then you become a robot, and you’re not an artist anymore. You’re a people pleaser. And it’s been said a million times, you can’t please everyone all the time. As an artist you have to embrace that risk. You jump off the cliff, and you either fly or you fall to your death. But either way, you gotta jump.”
Did the criticism hurt?
“Definitely,” he says. “To be an artist is to be an emotional wreck to a degree. As an artist, you thrive off of the acceptance of other people. You put your heart and soul into the music, and you give it to the world, and you beg them to love you. They either do, or they don’t. And when they don’t, you feel it. It hurts.”
Still, all of those Grammy Award nominations has to lessen the sting of the occasional creative misfire – doesn’t it?
Ne-Yo: “The Grammy Award is ‘The One’. It’s the highest award that you can get in music. It never gets old. So, the nomination alone is a victory in and of itself. It says that, of everything that happened in music throughout the year, they singled your work out as one of the best. Now, of course, you want the trophy, but if you don’t get it then you should be happy with the nomination. I know I am. And it definitely feels better to get a nomination than to get beat up by the press for taking chances with your art.”
Ne-Yo’s penchant for taking risks isn’t confined to music. He’s always been interested in acting, and has had the opportunity to involve himself in several big-budget films, including his turn as USMC Cpl. Kevin J. “Specks” Harris in 2011’s Battle: Los Angeles. Which begs the question: Who are some of Ne-Yo’s favorite actors?
“I like versatility in an actor,” he says. “Jared Leto is a good example. In every film, he’s playing somebody completely different. His look will change or his voice will change or whatever – I like actors that can do that. I’ve always wanted to be that guy who could turn into a whole other person if I felt like it.
“I love Tom Hanks, he’s one of my favorites. I love his versatility – the fact that he can do dramas, that he can do comedy – he has so much range that it’s ridiculous. Bruce Willis is another favorite – he can do comedy, and then he can turn around and do action. I guess I just love versatile performers.”
What was it about Battle: Los Angeles that appealed to him as an actor?
“Being able to do something that was completely not me,” Ne-Yo says quickly. I did Stomp the Yard, which was my first actual film. It was about historical black colleges, but it was basically a dance/R&B film. So there wasn’t much of a challenge there, not much of a stretch for me. But the character that I played in Battle: Los Angeles was quirky. He was this kind of high-strung dude. He was really conservative, too. And he always had these really, really dorky glasses on. The military calls them BCGs – birth-control glasses – because no woman in her right mind would ever have sex with you while you’re wearing these glasses [laughs]. So that’s how they explained the character to me, and I knew right away that this was going to be different. This wasn’t like anything I’ve played before, or anything that connected to me in real life. So I was ready for it. I took the challenge and I loved it.”
Perhaps the highest profile movie Ne-Yo has acted in to date has been Red Tails. Produced by George Lucas and directed by Anthony Hemingway, the movie is a fictionalized portrayal of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African American United States Army Air Forces servicemen who fought during World War II.
“Initially I had a little bit of knowledge of the Tuskegee Airmen,” Ne-Yo says, “but by doing this movie, I was able to gain a better understanding of who these cats were – they were top of the line, the cream of the crop. These were like the first black superheroes! They were definitely the smartest dudes out there, the strongest dudes out there, and they were doing things that, according to their white counterparts, people of color were not smart enough to do. Think about it – they were flying missions to protect the bombers, who were flying the bigger, slower planes. Under the care of the Tuskegee Airmen, not a single bomber was lost. So they not only excelled, they far exceeded anything that was expected of them. I was absolutely honored to be a part of that film.”
In 2012, Ne-Yo rebounded musically with R.E.D., which features the megahit Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself), co-written by famed Australian singer / songwriter Sia Furler.
“The song is about the importance of learning to love yourself first,” he says. “I have to give a shout out Sia, who co-wrote the song with me. That was actually her stroke of genius not mine, so I’ve got to give credit where credit is due. She actually wrote the line, ‘Let me love you, and I will love you until you learn to love yourself.’
What does the song mean to him personally?
“I think finding people who accept themselves for who they are is rare. Few and far between today, actually. Everybody’s getting cosmetic surgery this, or plastic surgery that, and it’s like nobody loves themselves for who they really are anymore. So a song talking about the importance of being who you are, and loving the flaws that are yours and yours alone, meant a lot to me. It’s the imperfections in each of us that create our perfection, so I was all for putting this song out there. I thought the timing was right.”
Speaking of what makes each of us unique, Ne-Yo himself is pretty serious when it comes to diet and working out.
“I take care of myself and work out six days a week,” he says, smiling. “It is definitely a labor of love. On my cheat day I eat anything I can get my hands on. I’m not that difficult to please. Anything that has red sauce and cheese, I’m all in. I love Italian food. I’m a pizza guy. Pizza, pasta, and only one day a week to do it, so I’m sure to get my fill.”
As if his schedule isn’t busy enough, he can now add the executive tag to his résumé.
“I’m now the Senior VP of A&R Records,” he says, “so now I have the ability to help out the millions of people who run up on me with their demos, YouTube links or whatever. Now I’m in a position to do something about it. But you gotta have what I’m looking for. The disappointing thing is that nobody seems to want to work for it anymore. There’s a lot of dependency on Auto-Tune. Don’t get me wrong, I would be a complete hypocrite if I told you that I’ve never used Auto-Tune, but there’s a big difference between using it as a safety net and using it as wings. You know what I mean? You don’t jump off the building with your Auto-Tune wings. That’s not how you’re supposed to do it. There is a thing called singing on key, and learning how to do so. And it seems like a lot of the kids that run up on me don’t even understand what that is.”
“I’m now the Senior VP of A&R Records, so now I have the ability to help out the millions of people who run up on me with their demos, YouTube links or whatever. Now I’m in a position to do something about it. But you gotta have what I’m looking for. The disappointing thing is that nobody seems to want to work for it anymore. There’s a lot of dependency on Auto-Tune. Don’t get me wrong, I would be a complete hypocrite if I told you that I’ve never used Auto-Tune, but there’s a big difference between using it as a safety net and using it as wings. You know what I mean? You don’t jump off the building with your Auto-Tune wings. That’s not how you’re supposed to do it. There is a thing called singing on key, and learning how to do so. And it seems like a lot of the kids that run up on me don’t even understand what that is.” – Ne-Yo
What exactly is he looking for in new talent?
“When I look for artists, I look for passion first and foremost. I look for people who do this because the love it, not because they want to get rich, not because they want to be famous. RaVaughn Brown is a prime example. I met her in California as a demo singer. I was introduced to her by a producer friend of mine, and I was impressed by her work ethic. That’s hard to find today. The younger cats today don’t understand what it’s like to stay in the studio until the song is perfect. She definitely gets all of that.”
And looking at the music industry through an executives eyes, what are some of the trends that he sees and would like to capitalize on?
“There are a lot of positive things going on,” he says. “The lines between music genres are being blurred more and more every day. Where does hip-hop start and end, what is R&B, what makes up dance, it goes on and on. And I kind of dig that. Like, maybe this hip-hop cat does something with a little melody in it, where it could almost be called an R&B song. Or this R&B artist might use a cadence within his melody, that could almost be considered hip-hop. Or maybe these artists come up with a floor-on-the-floor beat to where it could almost be considered a dance song. So I like the fact that everyone is kind of mixing and blending and coming up with these new sounds. It’s an exciting place to be.”
Now, about that little thing with Celine Dion…
“I’ve done some stuff for Celine Dion – that’s major, man. Wrote some stuff for her, as well as did a song with her. So, shout out to the incomparable Celine Dion. She’s performing in Vegas at Caesar’s Palace, she’s been there for a few years doing that. I’m from Vegas, and while I’m not sure exactly how it all came together, I just know I got a call one day, and that Celine wanted me to write her a song. Of course I said I’d do it. So I put the song together, and it was a beautiful thing. It was also a little scary, to tell you the truth, because she decided to turn the song into a duet and she wanted me to sing it with her. I didn’t see why my voice was needed when you have Celine Dion, but I held my own. It came out dope.”
Perhaps the work closest to his heart is his charity, The Compound Foundation. Founded in 2007, the foundation has quickly gone nationwide, with an influential Board of Directors that includes Bill Nuti, the CEO of NCR Corporation, and Kevin Carr, the VP of Community and Player Programs for the National Basketball Association.
“Our mission is child welfare, everything from group homes to foster care. It’s one thing to feed a child, it’s another thing to house a child, but it’s a completely different thing to inspire a child. Especially in the realm of foster kids and group home kids, because these are children who have been counted out before they get the opportunity to prove that they’re something more than just trouble. Kids in foster homes and group homes get stigmas associated with them – people automatically look at them you like there’s something wrong with them. That’s not fair. These kids miss out on a lot of opportunities because of those stereotypes. We step in and say, ‘Where you come from and where you go don’t have anything to do with each other.’
“We do everything from life skills to teaching kids how to fill out a job application. If you’re a kid bouncing from house to house with everything you own in a trash bag, which sadly happens more than you know, then you miss out on things that we take from granted every day, like balancing a checkbook. There are scholarships that you can get just because you’re a foster kid. If you don’t know about it, how can you take advantage of it? Our foundation works to help with these types of situations.”
What’s on tap for 2014?
“The next album is my sixth studio album, and even though I have a love and respect for EDM (electronic dance music) – that audience has been ridiculously kind and generous – I’m going to get back to my roots, so to speak. I don’t feel that I’ve given R&B the respect and attention that it needs and deserves. Plus, there’s a revolution underway in R&B; when you look at what Miquel did, and what Frank Ocean did, it’s easy to get really excited about what’s happening in R&B right now. So my next album will be predominantly R&B.”
And where does Shaffer Chimere Smith – AKA, Ne-Yo, AKA, R&B’s R.E.D. hot man of many hats – see himself decades from now, when the glare of the stage has dimmed and the public’s adulation has waned?
“I started out behind the scenes, writing music, my first love. I can still be writing music at 105, but trying to step out on the stage and perform at 105 could be a problem [laughs].”