Ne-Yo looked backward as he moved forward on his most recent album, Year of the Gentleman. Considering the bleak state of mainstream urban music these days, where lyrical chivalry seems to have gone the way of the eight-track, the R&B-pop; star wanted to bring romance back. He wanted to croon openhearted tunes of fidelity and down-on-your-knees songs of vulnerability.
He also wanted to look natty while doing it.
"There were a couple of statements I wanted to make with this record," says Ne-Yo, who headlines the Lyric Opera House tonight. "First point, I wanted to let people know I'm more than an R&B; guy. I wanted to test my fans and see if they would let me do different things. ... Second point, I wanted to bring class and style back, the way Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra did it back in the day. When did it become popular to look like a slob?"
But the gentlemanly approach in sound and image isn't exactly a major shift for the artist. His yearning songs, reminiscent of Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson, and sharp sartorial taste have been in place since his debut, 2006's platinum-selling In My Own Words.
Since then, Ne-Yo, 29, has become one of the most successful male acts in today's urban-pop realm. Beyond his two platinum albums (the other, 2007's Because of You, won a Grammy last year), the Arkansas-born Shaffer Smith has become one of the most sought-after songwriters in the industry. His recent hits for others have been ubiquitous, including Beyonce's "Irreplaceable," Rihanna's "Take a Bow" and Jennifer Hudson's "Spotlight." Like a new-millennium Babyface, Ne-Yo seems to have a knack for writing keen love songs, particularly from the perspective of brokenhearted women.
"Ne-Yo's songs are appealing because they are relatable," says Billy Johnson Jr., senior program director of urban music at Yahoo Music. "Instead of just writing what I call a simple love song, one that basically conveys the writer's love for the object of their affection, Ne-Yo's songs tell stories. ... [His songs] are not too urban that pop fans can't digest them, and they're not too pop that urban fans dismiss them."
The artist works that middle ground well on Year of the Gentleman as he fattens his once-spare, keyboard-driven sound with slick, throbbing beats. The heavily programmed music, which is only cautiously progressive, underscores lyrics that celebrate the power and beauty of women. With the album, Ne-Yo positions himself as the consummate man of taste.
On the cover, he dons a pinstriped slate-gray suit and tie. His face is obscured as he bows his head to place a cream fedora on top of it. Since the album's release in June, the response has been strong: The CD quickly went gold, spurred by the sleek hits "Miss Independent" and "Closer." It also earned multiple Grammy nominations, including a nod for album of the year.
At the Los Angeles ceremony last week, the singer-songwriter walked away with two trophies, one for best male R&B; vocal performance and another for best R&B; song. Both were for the No. 1 smash "Miss Independent." That song and "Closer" are club-ready numbers unlike the tender, melancholic ballads that drove sales of his previous two albums.
"Like the song 'Closer,' that wasn't a typical Ne-Yo song. It had more of a beat on it, and people don't expect that from me," says the artist, calling from a tour stop in Wales, about "Miss Independent." "Once people got over the shock of it not sounding like a typical Ne-Yo song, they rocked with it."
When he wasn't tweaking his sound and writing songs for Year of the Gentleman, the Las Vegas-raised performer was in the studio with Chrisette Michele. He wrote and produced six tracks on the R&B; star's sophomore album, Epiphany, which is due out late next month.
"I have to work with Ne-Yo on another record. What we created this time was so monstrous," says Michele, who also won a Grammy last week, for her will.i.am-assisted hit "Be OK."
She and Ne-Yo are on the same label, Def Jam Records, which made hooking up in the studio a little easier.
"He's very silly in the studio," Michele says. "He talks in these funny accents when giving you directions. He's very fun, and he's very humble. I would sit with Ne-Yo and his production team for hours in the studio. They allowed me to be hands-on, which I've always been. If I didn't think something worked, they listened."
Sleep is rare these days with the demands of being a hot international performer, producer and songwriter. But Ne-Yo doesn't seem to mind the pace.
"Work is governed by how much you love to do it," he says. "I can't call it work. My job is play. I've always loved to write."
Songwriting was Ne-Yo's break into the industry. In 2004, he wrote a lilting ballad called "Let Me Love You" for Baltimore R&B; singer Mario. Early the next year, the song became a monster, staying atop Billboard's pop charts for nine weeks and prompting an informal meeting between Ne-Yo and Def Jam. The artist was immediately signed to a contract, but it wasn't his first crack at a recording career.
In 2000, he was signed to Columbia Records. But the relationship was fruitless; the company dropped him and never released his album. Ne-Yo quickly built his reputation by writing songs for others, including Mary J. Blige, B2K and Faith Evans.
But it was the Mario smash, sweetly melodic and strongly influenced by vintage Michael Jackson, that set the template for Ne-Yo's re-emergence as a recording artist.
"I don't mind people saying who I sound like or who I'm influenced by," says the Atlanta-based performer. "When I was coming up, my mom was into Teddy Pendergrass and Gerald Levert, [singers] with these deep, growling voices. I didn't sound like that. My growl is more like a kitten purr. My mom gave me Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder records to listen to, because my tone fit theirs."
Ne-Yo's ingratiating songs and fluid high tenor may recall a sweeter time in R&B;, but his approach is thoroughly modern. He isn't as precious as John Legend or as lascivious as Usher. Ne-Yo is somewhere in the middle. Aside from being charged with reckless driving and driving without a license in Georgia early last year, the singer has an image that's largely untarnished. But even with healthy album sales and an impressive track record of hits for others, Ne-Yo says he has felt overlooked in the urban-pop world.
"You haven't seen me on the cover of Vibe or Rolling Stone or any magazines," Ne-Yo says. "You get attention from being on drugs or sleeping with 17 different celebrities. What, I got to knock somebody over the head with a champagne bottle in a club to get attention?"
But this year's Grammy nominations and wins provided validation.
"God works in mysterious ways, man. I have a large amount of respect from people in this business," Ne-Yo says. "That's what God was saying: 'Calm down. You get your respect from where it matters.' "
Even as his sound shifts a bit, there probably won't be any drastic changes to his image any time soon. Ne-Yo remains a gentleman.
"If it has anything to do with music, I'm there," he says. "But I always have to have some class with it."
IF YOU GO
See Ne-Yo at 8 tonight at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $47.50-$67.50 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-7328 or going to ticketmaster.com.