The Baltimore Sun


Year of the Gentleman


Shaffer Smith, known to the pop world as Ne-Yo, is undeniably smooth with his approach, but he's also clever. In the span of just three years or so, he has become perhaps the most sought-after songsmith in pop and R&B;, writing ubiquitous smashes for the likes of Beyonce and Rihanna. What makes him so hot? His songs are unapologetically pro-woman. He pens go-girl anthems such as Beyonce's "Irreplaceable" or heart-in-hand ballads such as Mario's "Let Me Love You" with refreshing lyrical specificity and unshakable melodic lines.

On his own hits - "So Sick," "Because of You" and the latest, "Miss Independent" - Ne-Yo is perpetually vulnerable. So it's little surprise that the Arkansas native decided to call his new album Year of the Gentleman, the follow-up to last year's Grammy-winning Because of You.

It's a concept album, kind of: The 12 songs extol the beauty and wonder of women. He's the ever-available boyfriend on the crafty "Single"; he's unworthy of his lady's love on the melancholic "Why Does She Stay."

Much of the album is ingratiating and hopelessly sweet. It's a glowing reprieve from all the mannish-boy posturing corrupting so much of today's urban music. Ne-Yo's silken melodies, lovesick lyrics and yearning high tenor recall, at times, the best of El DeBarge and especially Michael Jackson circa Off the Wall. But still, something about Year of the Gentleman feels too measured and slightly overwrought, especially midway into the album where Ne-Yo gets dangerously close to falling into a vat of musical sap.

The first half is the strongest. "Closer," the opening cut, is catchy, driven by a metallic disco thump courtesy of the Norwegian production team StarGate. That's followed by the sassy "Nobody," whose vocals sound like a straight-up Jackson impersonation. But don't hold that against Ne-Yo. The song is still a standout.

Drippy, slightly maudlin cuts such as "Fade Into the Background," "So You Can Cry" and "Part of the List" somewhat halt the flow and ultimately keep Year of the Gentleman from being as strong as Ne-Yo's previous two albums. But he continues to blossom as a songwriter, coming up with lovely, sometimes florid, tunes to celebrate women everywhere.

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