Interview: Ne-Yo Discusses 'Non-Fiction' Album, Auto-Tune, New Collabos And More

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.

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'The Last Train To Paris' Turns 10: Revisit Diddy's Aug./Sept. 2010 VIBE Cover Story

YOU EVER WATCH a control freak mellow out? It’s fascinating. When said micromanager is Sean “Puffy” Combs, it’s an enlightening ordeal altogether. Sitting at trendy Asian eatery Philippe Chow in New York City, two days before LeBron James announces that he’s taking his show to South Beach, Combs has talking points: impact and legacy. “This ain’t a regular run,” says Combs of his two-decade laundry list of accomplishments. “I’m saying that in the most humble way possible. I’m me and I’m seeing it. Most times the impact of what you do you don’t even live to see it.”

He’s the only patron seated for the evening, lounging at a table that comfortably seats eight. This is clearly a Sean John zone. His voice remains even, but the arrogance skyrockets. “It trickles over into sports. It goes into the way the free agent negotiations are going. [Athletes] have that belief. But that level of confidence as Black businessmen wasn’t really there. Unforgivable swagger. That shit wasn’t there.”

Translation: Sean believes that his ambition has been infectious. In his “humble” opinion, his drive has taught the have-nots that not only can they have, but they can be gluttonous and acquire wealth rather than riches. Will it ruin his day if people don’t agree? Not really. But he’d still like the legacy to be accurately documented. His reactionary reflexes have given way to him thinking long term, which could be why he’s unfazed by trivial shots like 50 Cent’s claims of having nude pictures of his artist Cassie. He’s more interested in guiding careers—Rick Ross, Red Cafe and Dirty Money, among them. And really, he’d like to do square biz and have your kids’ kids respect him like his contemporaries admire Warren Buffet. That would truly be money in the bank. In the meantime, he wants to mellow with a plate of chicken satay and talk Diddy legacy.

VIBE: You have said that rap’s heavyweight class consisted of Jay-Z, Kanye West, Lil Wayne and Drake. Do you still believe that?

Diddy: Definitely. I feel like Drake is somebody that entered professionally in the heavyweight division. He didn’t come in as a middleweight, he didn’t come in as a light heavyweight, he came in as a heavyweight. He’s gonna be a force to be reckoned with for a while. He is the definition of a new age musical rapper . . . going forward a lot of rap artists are going to have [singing and rapping] in their repertoire.

What’s the ranking in that heavyweight division?

Jay, Kanye, Wayne, and Drake.

Jay still No. 1?

Hands down as far as worldwide impact and due to this last album [The Blueprint 3]. He’s moved up in the rankings.

People don’t realize that you two are friends and not just industry acquaintances.

Over the years as we’ve grown, Jay and I have needed each other. We’ve needed to be able to pick up the phone and call somebody that can understand what each other was going through. We needed each other to motivate each other; we needed each other to push each other. We needed each other to support each other and also to challenge each other. He’s definitely been a great friend to me. There’s never been anything that I’ve asked him to do or he’s asked me to do that we really haven’t done for each other.

Give an example of when you had to pick up the phone and call Jay for assistance.

I wanted to do something game-changing with Sean John. And I just picked his brain. I did [a fashion line] before him but I think that business-wise he did a lot of things better than me. He picked the right time to get out and get his check, to sell his company. We sat on the phone and talked about itŃput our egos in our pockets. I didn’t see Sean John versus Roc-A-Wear. I just saw that my man over here is doing it [and I had] a couple of offers for Sean John. It was a beautiful conversation, ‘cause we’re sitting down at this restaurant and we’re talking about apparel. We’re not talking about music. It was a beautiful moment. Two quarter-of-a-billion dollar companies—just getting advice from your competitor. It was something that you heard rich White boys do.

Dr. Dre said that the last beat that floored him was “All About the Benjamins.” How does that make you feel?

It’s humbling. I was in the studio with Dre the other day. He started working on a record for me. Watching him as a producer is watching greatness. We had a lot of similar traits. It was like looking in the mirror. He would ask questions like, “How you feel about this?” People don’t really understand true producers want to know how you feel about things. We are some of the most observant people on the planet.

You’re a lot more into the music now than the last time we spoke.

I was waiting to get a lot of inspiration from the outside and it just wasn’t coming. And I’m not knocking anyone’s hustle that’s out there. I just come from musical history that musically people gave more of themselves . . . I was able to go back and listen to all the great records that I made. I ain’t do it on purpose. Like sometimes I’d be in a club and the DJ was just throwing tributes and would go deep in the crates. I would be like, “Damn, I forgot that I made that one.” It just gave me a deep connection and another level of confidence for me to do me.

Are you feeling more comfortable writing on your own?

Yeah. I learned a lot more. I feel a lot more confident and free. On this album, I wrote like maybe two or three records by myself. But I still like writing with somebody. It helps me. Not using it as a crutch, but I get better results from co-writing; having my own feelings and thoughts, and, you know, getting some help with it. I love the feeling of collaboration, community in the studio. I don’t like being the mad scientist and being in the room by myself.

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Desus & Mero Bless A Bronx Bodega With A Year's Worth of Rent

You know them as the hosts of the hit Showtime series Desus & Mero, aka "the greatest show in late-night history, featuring only illustrious guests." These days you might catch them chatting with President Obama, but  Bronx natives Desus Nice and The Kid Mero have never lost touch with their roots as the Bodega Boys.

"On our first podcast me and Mero used to have to ride the train back afterward," recalls Desus. "And basically our conversation on the train sounded exactly like the podcast. And somebody was like, 'Yo, they sound like two guys you hear in the bodega.' Which was true, because when you hear guys in the bodega, they talk very passionately about things. They may not have all the facts, but they're talking with their hearts."

"Their confidence is strong!" adds Mero with a laugh.

"That's just us," says Desus. "We're raised in bodegas. Probably 90 percent of the food we grew up eating was either our mother's cooking or chopped cheese sandwiches."

"Facts," Mero confirms.

Ever since the pandemic hit, New York City's community bodegas have served as a lifeline by providing New Yorkers with daily necessities, especially in neighborhoods where door-to-door gourmet food delivery is not an option. But staying open hasn't been easy—the daily risks of doing business under threat from a deadly virus—not to mention a spike in robberies and violence—has made running a bodega very challenging, to say the least. But day in day out, in good times and bad, they find a way to keep their doors open.

"If your block is the solar system, the bodega is the sun," says Mero. "The hood orbits the bodega."

So when the makers of Pepsi cola decided to give back on the bodega owners who provide life-giving sustenance and ice-cold soda to NYC's five boroughs, they reached out to the Bodega Boys as their official goodwill ambassadors. Today Desus & Mero appear in a short film called The Bodega Giveback, which highlights the way one Bronx bodega overcame extreme hardship—and the way Pepsi is helping them keep going after 2020 comes to an end.

For Juan Valerio and his son Jefferson, the proprietors of JJN Corp Deli & Grocery in the Bronx, 2020 has been a horrible year. Juan still remembers when he came to America with his father in 1990. "To buy a bodega at that time was well over $100,000," Juan recalls in the short film, which you can watch above. "It was a dream that seemed unreachable. I never thought I would achieve it. And now this is what I do. My whole life is here."

Then in April 2020, tragedy struck when Juan's father lost his life to COVID 19. For the first time in three decades, the bodega had to close its doors down briefly. "It’s something very powerful to lose what you love the most in a split second," Juan recalls with emotion as his son comforts him with a hug. "Life goes on. And I decided to come back because he always taught me to work. To stay closed was disrespectful to him."

"He had to shut down for a little bit," says Desus. "But then he reopened cause the community needed him. Cause the lockdown a lot of stores closed down. And in the Bronx, you can't really get stuff delivered. And he's the hub. We heard stories of what he did, so we were like, how can we give back to him? Shout out to Pepsi with the Bodega Giveback. And just giving him a year's rent—that's the most amazing thing you can give a bodega owner. Shout out to Juan and his son. The look on their face when they really get it—you see the appreciation."

"It really hit home," said Mero. "Cause it's like, we're children of immigrants. So that could have been us—if we didn't get seen by the right people and put in the right positions, we coulda been workin' alongside our dad at a bodega. And then watchin' your grandfather pass away and then comin' back because you know how important you are to the community. Like, that's really selfless. It's just a dope story. And those stories occur all over the place, it's just people don't see them. Cause they don't get exposed on a national level. But a brand like Pepsi can put that on a national stage and be like,  "Yo, look—this is a mom and pop establishment for real. And these are the small businesses that you supposed to be supporting."

The release of The Bodega Giveback kicks off a larger holiday giveback from Pepsi this season that includes cash gifts to bodega owners and consumers across NYC's five boroughs.  “Pepsi has so many longstanding bodega partners in New York City,” said Umi Patel, CMO of North Division, PepsiCo Beverages North America. “They are not only pillars of the community, but they have gone above and beyond to take care of their loyal customers during the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. They have worked around the clock to stay open, filling shelves to ensure their customers, friends, and family have the essentials they need to stay home and stay safe. They have even shifted their businesses to meet the needs of the community, offering new delivery options, adding crucial items like masks and gloves, and more, all while dealing with their own personal challenges of the pandemic. We are proud to do our part in giving back to these unsung heroes.”

From now until December 20, Pepsi will also be surprising customers at local bodegas across the five boroughs by gifting pre-paid credit cards of up to $100.00 per customer.

As Juan says in the film, "one hand washes the other, and with both, we wash our face."

Check out our full convo with Desus & Mero above and the short film, The Bodega Giveback.

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Level Announces Their 'Best Man 2020 Awards' Featuring Entertainment Elite to Everyday Kings

It is a hard feat for media brands to survive the content landscape these days. To pull off the incredible undertaking of informing an audience as a new publication in the digital space is damn near impossible, yet the team at Medium's Level has done just that. To celebrate making their mark as a one-stop information shop for black men with their one-year anniversary this week, the team of bright and witty editors has launched their first annual Best Man Awards 2020.

The plan to honor the brand that started in December of 2019, focused on the interests of African-American males, has expanded into encompassing the efforts of a few good men during this mess of a year that is 2020. In doing so, those that broke through barriers of personal pain, new business frontiers, and support of others are highlighted and given the rightful pedestals to gain well-deserved props.

Of the 12 awards, esteemed gents like Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, and D-Nice are saluted as Quarantine Kings for their Verzuz and Club Quarantine (respectively) social media music creations that entertained the masses during the dogged days of our universal shut-down. There is also a heroic soul of a man who protected a black woman and her family from the surrounding presence of racist neighbors on his own time and dime. They have an award for Father of the Year, where former NBA all-star and champion, Dwyane Wade shines as a glowing example of understanding and ushering in new ways of parenting in today's society.

With the awards being a noble move towards giving Black men some much-needed praise in 2020, Level made sure to round up the last 365 days with themes on "The State of Black and Brown Men" as well. Essays that cover the realms of political ideology, coping with covid among Blacks health care workers,  how Black men fell short of protecting Black women, and exploring what Black men see when they look in the mirror (a piece that is a user-generated content driver/audience-led convo). All hard topics that need to be detailed, yet are rarely in a space for deep-dive convo.

Helmed by former VIBE editor-in-chief, Jermaine Hall, Level's editors explain their thoughts on the special coverage and celebration of their one year old brand:

“With the Best Man Awards, we wanted to lean into people who are doing incredible things to support society and publicly thank them. Anthony Herron, Jr is a hero. He stepped up to protect someone he didn’t know because, as he saw it, harassment is unacceptable. LEVEL wanted to make sure he received a nod for his heroics. But there are also several celebrities who are doing things outside of their jobs. D-Nice, Swizz, and Timbaland helped us cope through music. And it wasn’t a paid gig for any of them. They responded because people needed help healing so they provided care. That’s a strong attribute of the LEVEL man. It’s certainly is the definition of men being their best selves."

Click here to read about these individuals and learn more about the Best Man Awards 2020. Excelsior to Level.


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