So Ne-Yo's playing arenas now? It's surprisingly to say the least, but Shaffer Chimere Smith's sudden popularity appears to be the aftershock of landing his first UK number one three years ago with the anthemic "So Sick", a ballad that left the impression that beyond R&B's 21st century all-dancing, all-wooing charade, there was still some room at the top of the charts for genuine, "can you hear my heart?" songwriting. Add to that the fact that the 29-year-old singer/songwriter has penned songs for the likes of Beyoncé and Whitney Houston, he sings like a dove, and is heavily influenced by Michael Jackson, and the current wave of Neyomania makes perfect sense. But Ne-Yo's precious love songs – which, judging from his latest album, Year of the Gentlemen, appear intent on convincing scorned women he's one of the good guys – always seemed suited for the more intimate venues.
From the offset, the expanse of the O2 almost leaves Ne-Yo vulnerable to extra scrutiny as the razzle-dazzle is kept to a minimum, he's got no backing singers, his songs arrangements are safe and compared to opening act Keri Hilson, who sets the bar with her energetic and sassy minx set, he's not as instantly captivating.
In the first 40 minutes, he's only as spectacular as a bit of seamless body-popping, and he zips through known hits "Because of You", "Nobody" and "Single", a pretty mellow number, which has him tossing roses to the awe-stuck front row. But then the charmer makes the sorry error of delivering the freaky-nasty "Say It", along with a host of scantily clad dancers, who appear to have been beamed in from Soho. With lyrics like, "You want my hands right here and my mouth right there", you can practically hear the collective cringe of parents who would probably need to now have safe-sex talks with their brood. Besides, Ne-Yo should know better than to openly play around with all that booty on a Sunday evening.
His playful charm (his smile alone deserves an Oscar), an impressive band and his army of inter-changing dancers keeps the show afloat, but his real strength comes in shape of vulnerable offerings like "Part of the List" and "Stop This World", the former sung with that evocative, heart-wrenching ascent that good power ballads are made of. His Jackson tribute is another saving grace, including a stunning rendition of "Lady in My Life", and the duet "I Just Can't Stop Loving You", where he's joined by that lovely Hilson. He also throws himself into the "Beat It" and "Thriller" routines, before inciting roars by moonwalking to "Billie Jean". At this stage, it's hard to believe he's the same fella who cut short the Manchester gig of his tour after sobbing during his Jackson tribute, with many reports citing illness. If he's poorly, it doesn't show, and for the rest of his set, he bristles with a sudden vitality that was needed during the show's first half.