R&B singer-songwriter Ne-Yo isn’t too tough to admit that he’s had his heart crushed.
Justin Timberlake may have brought sexy back, but Ne-Yo is busy bringing love back–and it's about damn time. Since releasing his 2006 debut, In My Own Words, the 24-year-old singer-songwriter has steered R&B away from thugged-out playboy pillow talk and back to the art of adoring women. And Ne-Yo does adore women. As his peers spin tedious tales about drunken one-night stands, the silver-tongued singer isn't afraid to worship the fairer sex, probing the joy and heartache that come with intimacy.
Ne-Yo has built his success on a simple principle: most so-called ladies' men don't actually like women very much. Females get that, and we aren't about to drop our hard-earned cash on some dude-running-bullshit game. Give us some smooth, tender vocals that make us feel genuinely appreciated, and we'll buy your album any day of the week.
The Las Vegas native credits his upbringing for this understanding. He grew up the sole male in his household, raised by a single mother, a sister, and numerous female relatives. "It was mainly just me and a bunch of women," he says with a laugh, when he's reached by the Straight on the phone. "I became a really good listener. I learned to listen not only to what a woman is saying but also to what a woman isn't saying."
In his teens, his buttery voice and natural songwriting talent landed him an artist deal at Columbia Records. The deal fell through eventually, but by then he had enough industry contacts to launch a songwriting career.
When Ne-Yo penned "Let Me Love You" for Mario in 2004, it was a departure from pop trends. After the song hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts–and held the spot for nine consecutive weeks–he knew his vision was viable. "It gave me hope," Ne-Yo recalls. "I'm not going to lie. I wasn't really happy with the state of radio at the time when that song came out. It seemed like R&B was dying."
He signed to Def Jam Records shortly after, launching his own solo career with the hit single "So Sick", a raw, moving track about sleepless nights spent alone, trying–and failing–to get over a breakup. "[It's] a song I wrote about my first love," he shares. "It was just one of those situations where you take a deep breath and you just start. I just had so much I wanted to say about that situation that I didn't get a chance to say. I put it all in the song."
The record was a risky move in a climate where most urban artists have a tough time letting their guards down at all, let alone admitting they've had their hearts crushed.
"For some guys, it's a sign of weakness," Ne-Yo reflects. "But in actuality, you've got to be pretty strong to express emotion–especially in today's society where people are going to talk crap about you. They [some guys] look at it like a guy isn't supposed to express his feelings. A guy isn't supposed to have those thoughts. I'm here to tell you that sometimes we have those thoughts. A guy is a human–and humans have these thoughts."
Not surprisingly, female fans embraced Ne-Yo. But, as it turns out, a lot of fellas did too. "I was actually shocked at the amount of men that were running up on me, talking about 'Sexy Love'."
What impressed them most about the In My Own Words song, he notes, was that it literally taught them how to talk to their girlfriends.
Ne-Yo's follow-up, Because of You, cemented his widespread fan base. Pairing light, easy melodies with poignant lyrics, the disc continues the singer's determination to explore the complexities of relationships. Set to infectious drums, "Because of You" sees the young crooner confessing his addiction to the rush of infatuation; "Do You" ponders lost love; and "Ain't Thinking About You" rebels against the constraints of a stifling affair. The disc effortlessly strikes a balance between frisky flirtation and raw longing; it's the stuff that great radio music is made of. And as a result, Ne-Yo now counts Britney Spears, Michael Jackson, and Beyoncé among his writing clients, and Jay-Z is calling him the new King of Pop.
Of course, with a raised profile comes the downside of fame. As is often the case with urban-music risk takers (see Kanye West), Ne-Yo recently became a target of Internet rumours about his sexuality. "In not ever having to deal with anything like this before, I got mad," he explains. "But then Jay-Z broke it down for me, like, 'This is the music business. You gotta take the bad with the good. If you're doing something right, haters are going to come around, and they're not going to go anywhere. You gotta learn how to let that roll off your back.'
"Anybody that knows me, knows I'm not gay," he continues. "If you wanna know, I've been an open book since day one. All you've got to do is ask, and I'll tell you: I love women." And, as any woman will tell you, it's nice tobe loved.
Ne-Yo plays Plush Nightclub on Sunday (August 12).