Ne-Yo Is Back And Better Than Ever After A 4-Year Hiatus. The Reason Is Self-Explanatory.

Ne-Yo Photo Credit: Jimmy Fontaine



Ne-YoPhoto Credit: Jimmy Fontaine

    FOR MOST OF US, IT’S A JUNGLE OUT THERE. For Ne-Yo, at this moment in time, it’s a jungle gym.

The 42-year-old, three-time Grammy winner is talking to me from Atlanta’s Piedmont Park, where he’s taken his kids for a pre-Memorial Day outing. They’re going rogue on the monkey bars while he, in turn, is talking about tackling a different kind of beast: the imminent July 15th release of his eighth studio album, Self-Explanatory.
The title, he says, speaks for itself. But the reason for a 4-year wait between this album and his last, 2018’s Good Man, well, that’s a little more complicated.

“I started this album in 2018, and I was moving through it a little more slowly than normal. It was taking me some time to get things going because I was really trying to figure out where I fit into the industry now — I’m not going to lie.”

This existential crisis was only temporary, however. He finally realized that, as a true artist, the point was never just to make money: It was to make art. “I’ve never been in this business just for the sake of selling records; that’s not my job. I had to remind myself of the reasons I fell in love with music in the first place and not worry about where the album was going to fall — be it urban radio or pop radio — that nothing else really matters when it comes down to the creation of art.”

His album was sidelined, though, for a more basic reason as well — the same reason that derailed everyone else’s life for the past many years: Covid-19. “The pandemic really threw a monkey wrench in everything, for everybody — myself included,” he admits. “I wasn’t doing a lot of recording at the time because I was just trying to figure out what the hell was actually going on. It was a moment.”

A particularly uninspiring one at that. Ne-Yo, née Shaffer Chimere Smith, felt no desire whatsoever to get off the couch and start recording. “I wasn’t inspired at all, no,” he confesses. “I gained a little weight, weight that I’m still blaming on the quarantine and still trying to get off. I was three years vegan when Covid started, but I had to let go of that because I was like, ‘Listen, if I’m going to die tomorrow, I’m going to have a burger. Sorry, but leave me alone.’ I wasn’t inspired to write because I was just terrified. What’s going to happen to me, to my kids? I was in a dark place.”

And last, but integral, he was having problems at home. “My wife and I weren’t in the best place, either,” he confides.

All in all, it wasn’t a recipe for success. “With all the other albums I’ve done before, I didn’t have to deal with a pandemic, I didn’t have to deal with being 42 and coming back into this game feeling almost like a new artist, being back out there again for the first time in a long while. So, it took a minute for me to get back into the swing of things, back into realizing that the world is not about to crumble into dust and float off into space, that the sun is probably going to come out tomorrow — so maybe we should finish this album. I didn’t start recording again until mid-2021, but by the grace of God, it’s officially done.”

Ironically, putting pen to paper and turning his struggles — particularly those with his partner of seven years, Crystal Williams — into song not only proved cathartic but also made for some pretty rad music, including Self-Explanatory’s first single, “Don’t Love Me.”

In fact, according to Ne-Yo, the track started out as an open letter to his wife. In the song, he cautions her that he’s not in the right headspace to be in a healthy relationship, that she deserves someone who will treat her better, that because “Lying to your face done got, too easy for me to not /Even though I love you a lot / All I’m a wind up doin’ is making you hate me… /And I really wanna see you happy.”

Yet, everything happens for a reason, and confronting their issues head-on when the pandemic forced them together proved to be the best thing possible, personally, professionally, and musically. “We were forced to sit in each other’s faces and talk about things we wouldn’t have talked about otherwise, and really and truly figure out a way to navigate ourselves back to what it is we wanted to be together as a couple. I mean, everybody says that relationships are hard, but this was a whole new level of that, being forced to sit around and talk about the things that are uncomfortable. Being painfully honest with somebody about everything is not easy, especially because you have to turn that finger that you’ve been pointing at everybody else around on yourself and realize that you’ve made absolute mistakes before, and these mistakes have become detrimental to your situation. Having to admit that to yourself is never an easy thing. It is, however, inspiring… and it makes for great song lyrics,” he admits.

Ne-YoPhoto Credit: Jimmy Fontaine

And while there are parts of the album that are confessional and experimental, many of the tracks are quintessential Ne-Yo: smooth, sexy R&B sprinkled with pop and hip-hop, a noble tenor giving way to a beautiful falsetto, with whiffs of Michael Jackson, Babyface, Usher, and Luther Vandross. Hence, again, the title of this upcoming album.

“I’ve been here almost 20 years now, and I’ve been releasing music for 16 years now. I feel like at this point, the album doesn’t really need a whole lot of explanation. It’s a Ne-Yo album. Meaning: If you know my music, you’ll know what to expect, to a degree. Expect songs that tell a story, that are easy to follow. It’s the kind of music that you can get ready to clean the house to on Sunday, as well as the music that you can listen to while getting ready for the club on Saturday, too. If you know me, you know what to expect, and if you don’t know me, you’ll learn what to expect,” he explains.

That doesn’t mean that he’s unoriginal in any way — he’s an innovator by nature — but mostly that, after all this time, he damn well knows what works — and what feels authentic. “I like to experiment, so here I jump around and try some different things, some EDM-inspired dance records. There are songs that kind of push the envelope a bit, but then others that fall right into place with what you know and appreciate from me,” he explains.

That means, he promises solemnly, that the album is not fully a tale about lost love that was found again. He has so much more to say.
“The entire album is not about my wife, because one thing that I’ve realized as an entertainer is that, as much as I want to be able to be authentically me as humanly possible, I also understand that not everybody else is married, or in my predicament. I can’t sing every song from the standpoint of a married man; not every visual can be my wife. I mean, it’s still entertainment at the end of the day. As much as people love and appreciate my wife, maybe they don’t want to know that every single song I’m singing is about her, because then how do you personalize it? So, not every song is about her or our situation — not even half, to be honest. There were songs that really meant something to me, and then songs where I kind of just needed to get them out and off my chest, and there were a lot, but only the best ones made the album, the ones that I felt like were going to tell the story I wanted to tell, but also be an instrument for a listener to use to help themselves whenever need be.”
So what made the cut? There’s the personally meaningful “Stay Down,” featuring Young Blue, about having a ride-or-die — which started off being about Williams, but then expanded to include his mother, his management team, all the people in his corner who have always had his back. It’s a dedication to “the people who have been around since the beginning, the ones I can genuinely say that if I never made another dollar ever again, are the people that would still be there.”

Then, there’s “Laying Low,” featuring up-and-coming talent State France, whom Ne-Yo just signed to his own Compound Entertainment. This story isn’t personal — it’s France’s tale, about being a single guy in LA showing a new girl the ropes in the City of Angels, who ditches him when she feels confident enough to explore on her own. “It’s not typical Ne-Yo, but it’s a great record, an interesting concept with two really lovely voices on it,” he says.

Moving on, there’s “Handle Me Gently,” Ne-Yo’s “throwback record,” rife with positive old-school vibes, inspired by the likes of New Edition; “You to Love,” featuring Jeremiah; “Call Me Up,” the result of working with new and rising talent with an interesting concept — a woman repeatedly calling her ex-boyfriend because her new partner “can’t do it the way he does”; and “Body Bag” — which pretty much errrryone in the strip club is going to get excited about. Come again?

“Basically, I’ve never had a strip club anthem — me, myself, as Ne-Yo — and I’ve always wanted one, that song that comes on and makes all the girls get up and do whatever they’re going to do. I’ve always wanted that record, so I wrote it.”

As a bonus, singer, actor, dancer, choreographer, and model, Teyana Taylor, is meant to direct the upcoming single’s music video — although as to when, Ne-Yo admits he doesn’t actually know. “Her schedule is busier than mine!” he declares. “But I thought it was a really cool concept to have Miss Teyana Taylor direct it. I’m actually really excited because she has immaculate vision.” 

Collaboration is a much more prominent theme on Self-Explanatory more so than any other Ne-Yo record. Although he himself came to fame for penning Mario’s 2004 mega-hit, “Let Me Love You” — the one that prompted a meeting between him and then-Def Jam president Jay-Z and led to an eventual contract, and has written some of the world’s most recognizable songs for fellow artists, including Jennifer Hudson’s “Spotlight” and Rihanna’s “Take a Bow” — writing for himself has always been a predominantly solo effort… until now.

“The process of putting together this album was definitely different in that, as opposed to me going in and trying to figure out what concepts made for the best records, I sat down with two or three other writers and had to learn how to co-write. I’ve never been good at that because my writing process is kind of an internal thing. Meaning, I can sit with a beat or sit with a guy and a guitar and listen to chords long enough to formulate lyrics and melodies in my head, instead of working it out line by line with a different writer. It was an interesting experience, and a good way for me to not become that guy who’s stuck in doing things one way. There was a point in time when I was a slave to a pen and pad, when I had to write on physical paper to get my ideas across. I’m trying to take those shackles off now. I used to watch Jay-Z do it and I was amazed because I could never quite figure out how to do that myself.”

He pauses then continues, “I tell people all the time, there’s no wrong way to write a song. However, you get there is how you’re going to get there. But I actually found it kind of fun to try doing things slightly differently than I normally would and just see what comes out. You can’t do the same thing and expect a different outcome — that’s literally the definition of insanity. So I thought, Why not try some new things, get some new writers in, new producers, people I’ve never worked with before? And I can honestly say that I’m proud of this album. I’m proud of what it’s become.”

Ne-YoPhoto Credit: Jimmy Fontaine

    RIGHT NOW, NE-YO IS SCARED. Not terrified, mind you. His kids are performing some daring moves right now on the monkey bars, prompting him to huff, “Little acrobats — without the patience or the talent!” The time to monkey around is officially done, and his brood moves to the swings so that their dad can talk about his fears, hospital visits from their shenanigans aside.

We’re talking about age and starting over. Given his overwhelming success as an artist, it’s humbling. Not only has he had platinum certifications for albums, including In My Own Words (2006), Because of You (2007), and Year of the Gentleman (2008), the second of which won a Grammy Award in the category of Best Contemporary R&B Album, but seven of his singles, as well as five on which he appeared as a featured artist, peaked within the Top 10 of the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop chart. He’s responsible for Rihanna’s “Russian Roulette” and Beyoncé’s  “Irreplaceable,” as well as writing songs for the likes of Carrie Underwood, Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, Celine Dion, and Enrique Iglesias, among others. He was named Motown Records’ senior vice president of A&R in 2012; opened his own recording studio, Carrington House, in Atlanta; and his own production company and label, Compound Entertainment. And he’s even showed off his acting chops, with cameos in Sharknado 3 and Empire, and for a live televised stage production of The Wiz, he played Tin-Man; judged World of Dance for three years; and soon he will star in Step Up: High Water for the Starz network.

And yet, after all his achievements, there is that fear of the unknown, of starting over. “Listen,” he says. “When I was a younger kid doing this thing, it was about how much I enjoyed the opportunity to have my dreams come true, the opportunity to get my thoughts and ideas out there. It was a beautiful thing. Now, as a 42-year-old man with five children, this is a means to feed them. It’s not a pastime or a hobby that I just happened to make good on. I would love it if you just like the songs, but I kind of need you to love the songs — enough to the point where you buy the concert ticket or buy the album, so that I can continue feeding my children. So that’s the only real fear that comes with [my career] now.
He continues, “So now my definition of success has changed a little bit: From the standpoint of just being an artist and things naturally changing the way that they will, I’m not so afraid, I’m not so much mad at those things because everybody knows that the sign of a true artist is to evolve and change and test yourself, to explore and experiment within your artistic integrity. If I don’t make it to the MTV Video Music Awards or the Grammys but I made enough to still feed my family, I’m okay. I’m not so much the guy that’s like, ‘Oh God, I hope I still sell a million records,’ I’m not that dude anymore. I’ve been there, I’ve done that and that’s a great feeling, but it’s not the greatest feeling in regard to the rewards that you can get from this music. A man once told me that he didn’t take his own life because a song of mine came on. That’s powerful. There’s nothing that can equate to that, no amount of money that you can give me, no amount of records that can be sold that will equal up to that I saved a life with a song.”

He’s heading out on a tour soon to promote the album, and even that looks new, thanks to the pandemic. It’s tougher than usual to leave his kids and wife behind now that they’ve all had so much time together for the past several years. But a guy’s got to do what a guy’s got to do, and right now he’s content with whatever that might be.

“I’m slightly fearful for the future, but at the same time, I’m happy with my family, I’m happy with my wife. I’m happy with my career, to be honest; I’m in a happy place,” he admits, noting, “I’m just not going to ignore all of those other emotions just because I’m happy. Life is a roller coaster — you’re literally happy, then you’re sad, then you’re up, then you’re down. Things go well, then things go bad. That is the natural ebb and flow of life, and I’m okay with that. As of right now, things are going well, everything is in a good place, and who’s to say how long that’s going to last? There will never not be issues, there will never not be obstacles, there will never not be things that you have to go through, things you have to figure out. This is always going to be the truth as long as breath is entering and exiting your lungs. No one understands this — that pain is a part of the process, that not everything is always going to be comfortable. But as long as you can accept those things for what they are and know that the key to success is to just keep going, to not let anything stop you, then you’ll be fine. That’s the way I look at life, at least.”

He always knows that no matter what happens, he’s going to live in the present and try to live that present to its fullest. “Tomorrow is not promised, and yesterday is gone, so all you really and truly have is right now, this moment. The advice I’m trying to follow personally is not to let this moment pass me by, not to take this moment for granted,” he declares, adding, “Keep your eyes to the sky, your ears to the ground, you will hear me, see me, I will be around. That’s what I always say, and I will continue to say it until it ain’t true no more.”
Bottom line: Ne-Yo is still here — and he’s not going anywhere.