If R&B were a classroom, multi-platinum selling artist Ne-Yo would be the quiet student who sits in the back of the class with the mystique and swag of a confident, but humble intellectual that everyone secretly aspires to be like. Ne-Yo wouldn’t answer every question because he’d find satisfaction in knowing that the quality of his work surpasses his flamboyant, attention-seeking classmates who use shallow themes to get by. Often when an artist seeks quality over what’s popping at the moment, he/she falls to the wayside or fades to black, especially with the media. But the three-time Grammy Award winning Ne-Yo doesn’t mind being, in his words, “underrated.” He'd rather move with quiet determination, stay on his Fugees shit, and softly kill the game.
Which is exactly what the self-proclaimed gentleman has been doing since arriving on the music scene nearly a decade ago. While many artists plea for attention with shenanigans such as taking flicks with other celebs, flooding strip clubs with dead presidents, beefing with other artists or following the current music industry fads, Ne-Yo is moved by quality, and he consistently holds down the Billboard charts, like a family man keeping his home filled with food, love and financial support.
Ne-Yo’s ability to pinpoint a feeling or certain moments speaks volumes about his refined thought process and songwriting skills. For instance, the lyrics, "You make the hairs on back of my neck stand up,” or “To the left, to the left/Everything you own in a box to the left," are believable lyrics inspired by real-life experiences and not by a fantasy. Real-life is forever. Fantasies are temporary. And Ne-Yo's a songwriting genius who's mastered the perfect balance of imagination and simplicity.
“I’m still very, very underrated, and I feel like a lot of it has nothing to do with my music and everything to do with the fact that I’m not the dude that’s going to beat somebody up in the club or tell the world about who it is I’m fucking," said Ne-Yo during a phone interview with VIBE. "I’m just not that guy."
As Ne-Yo puts the finishing touches on his forthcoming Non-Fiction album, he spoke with us about songwriting, performing, his favorite strip clubs, recording with T.I., Juicy J and much more.
VIBE: What do you think about the state of R&B today?
Ne-Yo: There are different kinds of R&B happening today. There’s the traditional more soulful R&B that doesn’t get the recognition that it deserves. Then there’s the more hip-hop oriented stuff. You got your boy Ty Dolla $ign, people like that, who are bringing more hip-hop elements to R&B, which is cool. I feel like R&B is in a state of evolution right now.
So, what are you trying to do with this album?
With this album, I’m just trying to figure out what my place is in the whole thing. I’ve been here roughly 10 years now. Actually, I think my first album dropped ten years ago. And, I’m just trying to keep the music good. I’m just trying to add my two cents in this R&B movement that’s happening right now.
Why doesn't a lot of today's R&B sound real?
That has a lot to do with the auto-tune and all of that. Auto-tune is good to keep your notes intact, but it doesn't do much for the feel of your voice. The Auto-Tune makes everybody sound the same and takes away all of the emotion because you’re singing through this machine, and of course your taking all of this emotion out of your voice, for the most part.
Do you ever use auto-tune and we're just not aware?
Although, I do use auto-tune, I use it as a safety net as opposed to wings. It’s some cats that go to auto-tunesto jump off the building to fly around the room. I can’t do that. I need the emotion, I need the passion to be felt in whatever it is I’m saying. That is not a jig at anybody else, I’m just saying that that might be the reason some of the feeling in R&B is lost a little bit because cats is depending more on technology than what it is that God gave them initially, which is a passionate voice to speak about something your passionate about. I come from that Jodeci era, that initial R.Kelly era where it was about singing through air. And, that’s what I do, or at least that’s what I try to do to the best of my abilities.
Is there a theme behind this album?
The name of the album is Non-Fiction. And, I’m calling it that because the name of every song on this album is derived from a true story. Now, some of the stories are mine. Some of the stories belong to some of my fans. I actually reached out via Instagram, Twitter or whatever the case may be, and I’ve focused this on my fans. Things that are going on in their love life, things going on in their personal life and I wrote a song about it. From all these true stories I put together a story that’s not true. But, in that, it’s derived from true stories that’s why I’m calling it Non-Fiction.
How are you approaching this album?
Well, there’s a couple of ways that you can approach an album. You can go the compilation route, where you record a bunch of songs, pick the best ones and put an album out. That way can work, but for me I always want to try to do something a little different, a little extra to give the listener a little more to latch onto. Take for instance, the Libra Scale album for example, what I tried to do with that was build a story line around songs. I delved in something that I didn’t really know nothing about, which is all why that album didn’t go the way it should have.
Any features on the album?
Well, the first single, ‘Money Can’t Buy” features the boy Young Jeezy. I still don’t know exactly why it is that the collaborations with me and Jeezy work. I am the epitome of R&B and Jeezy is the epitome of street. That’s what he is, that’s what he do. But, for whatever reasons his tone and my tone together just makes sense. I got T.I. on the joint. I got the boy Juicy J on a couple records. I just wanted to reach out to people that I haven’t worked with before and see what happens. So, I reached out to a few people and of course the best ones are the ones that made the cut.
What’s it like recording with T.I.?
Well, the way that particular song went down, I had an idea already, I knew what I wanted to write about. I needed another perspective on the record. The name of the record is “One More.” And, it’s basically me and T.I. getting a young lady at a bar, so I go at it one way and I know how I do, but I needed another perspective on it, because everyone don’t rock the way I rock and every body don’t do what I do. So, I called on T.I. who happened to be in the studio right next to me. So, I asked him about doing the track, I played it for him and he said, ‘I fuck with this, let me do something.’
Ne-Yo and Juicy J, that’s interesting.
The first Juicy J record that I did, I already had a concept for, but for one, I needed somebody that I never worked with before and two, someone that was going to bring the concept home. The name of one of the records is “Run.” It’s about that predator chic, that professional groupie. Her whole thing is to break up relationships, get in and troll for money and all that. So, I called on Juicy J because the song is a little more trappy than you’ve ever heard from me. So, who better for that than J? Called on J, he came in laid his verse down and it just brought the whole song, the whole vision of the song to life. It just made perfect sense.
The second song I did with him is called “She Knows,” it’s basically my version of a strip club song. I’ve never had a strip club song. I do enjoy strip clubs, I’m a fucking guy at the end of the day.
No doubt. What’s your favorite strip club?
I got a couple strip clubs, Onyx in Atlanta is definitely one of my favorite spots. As well as DOA (Diamonds of Atlanta). I go to Magic City from time to time, but I have the most fun at Onyx. I’ve never been to any of the strip clubs in Houston, I’ve heard amazing things about them I just never been. Got to get out there one of these days.
Was there ever a period where you felt like this was work instead of a passion?
I put it to you like this. As a songwriter, there was a lot more freedom for me to just be who the hell I am. Do whatever it is you do. Be with whoever it is that I want to be with, without any ridicule or judgment or criticism from the masses. Because as a songwriter you’re not in the public eye, so it doesn’t matter because you’re not in the public eye, so you get to have a regular life. As an artist when you’re in front of the camera, you put yourself out there to be judged, you put yourself out there to be possibly ridiculed, criticized or for people to even make up shit about you. Even though people were trying to tell me about all that, can’t nobody tell you nothing to prepare you for that. The first time it happens to you you like, ‘who is this and why they talking shit about you on Twitter?’ You want to go to war, fight. You want to attack every nigga on Twitter. But, you cant’ do that. That part of it became work for me and just getting to a place where I understand the business side of the music business.
So, when that happens do you think people stop focusing on the music?
I’ve had magazine editors tell me to my face that I’m boring because I’m not the knucklehead. I’m not that dude. I’m a regular guy at the end of the day who just happens to do music and do it relatively well. But, that’s not enough to write a story about I guess. I had to realize that this is a business at the end of the day. The business side of music is a real thing. And, people want to sell magazines so they put people on the cover who they feel can sell magazines, so of course, they put people on the cover that they feel people want to read about, that people are interested in.
Would you rather stick to songwriting or performing?
I was thinking that at one point. At one point it got real bad for me. I was in a really funky place. Just feeling unappreciated. Like, I have yet to be on the cover of VIBE Magazine for the record [laughs]. Not as a ploy to get on there now. I’m just saying I feel unappreciated behind the fact that people are telling me that once the music is off what is there to talk about in regards to Ne-Yo? And, my response to that is why is the music not enough? But, now like I say, I do it because I love it and I do it for the people that’s paying attention. I love being on stage, I love performing, I've received more love in other parts of the world than I have here in the States, not to take anything away from my American fans, I love y’all to death, but my fan base is a little bigger outside of America.
I feel like that may be because outside America they have a little more appreciation for just the music, it’s not about what car you’re driving, you know, all that kind of stuff. Now, it’s about doing it for the people that’s paying attention. I can write a song until I’m about 145 years old. I don’t have to worry about my knees going bad, I don’t have to worry about being cool. None of that shit matters in song writing. I can write my songs go home and play with my kids. As an artist, I know there’s an expiration date on this. I ain’t going to be able to spin around as fast as I once could once I turn 45-50, so I’m do this for as long as people are listening and once they stop listening, I’m do it for the younger generation that’s coming up and write their songs. So, with that being said, music will always be a part of me.