Ne-Yo - A leading light, content in the shadows

Ne-Yo may be one of R&B's most-wanted, but he's intent on steering clear of the media's intrusive glare.

Charlotte Cripps
Friday 01 October 2010 00:00

The down-to-earth American R&B star Ne-Yo was hired by Michael Jackson last year, just before Jackson died, to knock out four or five songs a week for a new album. Now Ne-Yo is back in the studio with Beyoncé, working on her latest project.

Yet despite these illustrious connections, Ne-Yo (who is never seen without a hat and claims that they actually feel like a "body part") doesn't feel he gets the credit he deserves.

The prolific singer/songwriter to the stars, who wrote Rihanna's No 1 hit "Take a Bow" and Beyoncé's smash hit "Irreplaceable", has also just celebrated his third No 1 hit in the UK, "Beautiful Monster". He also managed to take an 18-month sabbatical from music, to make Hollywood action films.

I meet him in New York to discuss his new album, Libra Scale, out next month. The album is accessorised by mini music movies, which weigh up the album's theme of fame versus love.

Ne-Yo, 30, sits down to eat lunch at the swanky Manhattan hotel where he is staying. He is wearing a navy blue flat cap and glances sideways from underneath its brim.

"Michael told me the songs had to be magical. 'Magical' was a word that kept coming up. He chose about ten of my songs for his new album. But I don't know what to do with them now. I'm afraid that if I make a tribute record people will think I'm cashing in on my idol," he says. "People's reasons for making music have changed. I remember a time when people made music for the sheer joy of it. Nowadays people are just trying to make money and you can hear it. Everything sounds the same: it's shallow, hollow and thin. I take the time... "

Ne-Yo's slower and cheesier R&B songs include his first No 1, from 2006, "So Sick", and the 2008 Top 20 hit "Mad". His 2008 No 1 "Closer" and the Grammy-Award-winning "Miss Independent" number among his more up-tempo chart successes. He featured on Keri Hilson's Top 10 hit "Knock You Down" last year, Grammy-nominated for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration, and is appearing on The Late Show with David Letterman in a few weeks.

But despite three platinum-selling Top 20 albums, In My Own Words (2006), Because of You (2007) and Year of the Gentleman (2008) – Ne-Yo remains in the shadows. "Nowadays you can be famous for nothing. Scandal and controversy is recognition. American magazines feel there is nothing major to write about me. I'm invisible to them because I've never been arrested for carrying a gun and I'm not trying to have sex with every female celebrity that I meet."

Ne-Yo has been in the news for buying a $5,000 hat that crumples up and bounces back into shape; for having a meltdown in Manchester when he walked off stage last year in floods of tears (he blamed a lack of holidays and sinus problems); and for expecting his first child in January with his actress girlfriend, Monyetta Shaw. There was also the drama involving another woman's child who he later found out was in fact not his own. But otherwise, Ne-Yo keeps his head down and gets on with things quietly.

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Born in the Deep South in Camden, Arkansas, Ne-Yo – real name Shaffer Chimere Smith – moved to Nevada in Las Vegas at the age of 5, when his father left the marital home. He was bullied at school for having thinning hair and started to wear hats all the time.

The absence of his father brought up a lot of deep-seated issues. Simmering with frustration and anger, his mother gave her 12-year-old son a pen and paper to express himself. "It became my therapy," he says.

He moved to LA at the age of 17 with two friends, where they failed to make it as a boy band. As a "writer for hire" at a studio, he eventually got noticed and was signed to Columbia Records.

Happier behind the scenes than acting in front of the camera, Ne-Yo's ego is not at the forefront of his creative endeavours. "I don't think I'm a bad actor, but I'm by no means worthy of being on the same screen as actors I look up to, such as Denzel Washington, Kevin Spacey or Sean Connery." Nevertheless, Hollywood has embraced him. He has two films coming out next year, including the action/sci-fi film Battle: Los Angeles, also starring Aaron Eckhart, about a Marine platoon's encounter against an alien invasion on the streets of LA, as well as Red Tails, about the first African-American pilots to fly in a combat squadron during the Second World War. "I have a lot of growing to do as an actor," he says.

Ne-Yo's single "Beautiful Monster" is out now. His new album, 'Libra Scale', is released on 1 November

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