By Jacob Katel
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By Nate "Igor" Smith
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"I'm so sick of love songs/So tired of tears/So done with wishing that you're still here," sings Ne-Yo on "So Sick," his voice limp from pain. The music beneath him is simply a light piano and a drum machine, a minimalist canvas for his tears. "Yeah, I'm so sick of love songs/So sad and slow/So why can't I turn off the radio?" he cries.
As an R&B ballad, "So Sick" occupies the same territory as last year's "Let Me Love You" by Mario incidentally a song Ne-Yo also co-wrote (with Miami-based songwriter-producers Scott Storch and Kam Houff). But if Mario's "Let Me Love You" idealized the tenderly seductive R&B romantic, then "So Sick" memorializes a lover dying, ever so slowly, of a broken heart. In the video for "So Sick," Ne-Yo is trapped in a remote winter lodge surrounded by snow-capped mountains. As the young lion in winter, he prowls around, depressed, as images of better times with his woman flash through his mind. Though wrapped in a thick fur coat and knit cap, he can barely keep himself warm. "I'm so over being blue crying over you," he sings.
This past March, "So Sick" went to number one on the Billboard charts and made Ne-Yo a star. His debut album, In My Own Words, also topped the charts. "Did I expect it? No, not at all," says Ne-Yo from the USTA National Tennis Center. In several minutes, he will perform during Arthur Ashe Kids' Day, a pre-U.S. Open event also starring pop-rockers Teddy Geiger and MTV-certified starlet Cheyenne. "I hoped that, when we put out this album, people would respect the music. I guess I got lucky, because they did. So here I am," Ne-Yo says.
He also says he wants to bring back real R&B unfiltered by hip-hop. Ironically it's the same claim Usher made at the height of his Confessions. "The school of R&B I grew up with wasn't really being represented at the time," says Ne-Yo. When asked to list some examples, he cites "Boyz II Men, Jodeci, Guy you know, people like that. Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Prince."
However, unless you compare it to Prince's pre-Dirty Mind, pre-genius recordings like For You and "I Wanna Be Your Lover," Ne-Yo's In My Own Words doesn't earn him auteur status. The beats, produced by an assembly of unheralded musicians, are graceful and anonymous. They allow Ne-Yo's lightly melodic voice and words to take center stage. He doesn't try to dazzle his listeners with political commentary or wild thematic concepts. Instead he offers poetic lyrics that are simple yet evocative.
"She makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up/Just one touch/And I erupt and cover her with my love," he sings on "Sexy Love." Like most R&B records, the lyrics are thinly veiled metaphors for the act of making love. They're a clumsy read on paper, but they come alive through Ne-Yo's sincere, impassioned delivery. "And I just can't think (of anything else I'd rather do)/Than to hear you sing (sing my name the way you do)/When we do our thing (when we do the things we do)," he sings.
In My Own Words belongs to a decades-old R&B balladeer tradition that continues to thrive in spite of hip-hop music. What distinguishes Ne-Yo from Mario, Usher, Omarion, Marques Houston, Bobby Valentino, and scores of others is that he writes his own lyrics. His talent for penmanship is a chief selling point: The cover for In My Own Words superimposes his photo over a notebook filled with beautifully handwritten verses. It has also helped him survive in the music industry. "I just wanted to get my name out there and get people back to the traditional sound of R&B," he says.
Born Shaffer Chimere Smith, the 23-year-old first emerged as a member of Las Vegas quartet Envy. (The group also featured Corey Clark, disgraced American Idol contestant and Paula Abdul nemesis.) When the group fell apart in 2000, Ne-Yo snagged a short-lived deal with Columbia Records. As Ne-Yo's solo career foundered, Marques Houston happened to hear one of his tracks, "That Girl."
"The song was actually supposed to be my first single," says Ne-Yo. Instead Houston picked up "That Girl" as a single for his 2003 debut album, MH. "That was the song that really got people asking questions about me as a writer, so from there I went in and started being a writer," he adds.
For the next two years, Ne-Yo quietly toiled behind the scenes, writing songs that were never officially released and contributing to projects like Teedra Moses's 2004 album Complex Simplicity and Christina Milian's It's About Time that didn't get the attention they deserved. After Mario's "Let Me Love You" blew up, Tina Davis, former A&R representative for Def Jam (and currently Chris Brown's manager), set up an informal meeting with label head L.A. Reid. "I wasn't really looking for a record deal, but by the time I left the building, I had performed for Tina, I had performed for Reid, and I walked away with a deal," says Ne-Yo.