"She will make you love it, even if it hurts," Ne-Yo sings menacingly on "Cause I Said So," a track from his forthcoming fourth album, Libra Scale (due September 21st). Only, the R&B singer-songwriter isn't singing about a typically forceful romantic encounter, but an evil, possessed villainess named Diamond Eye: Libra Scale is a concept album that chronicles the journey of R&B's very first superhero team, the Gentleman, and their rise to fame, power, and money — all at the expense of love.
"I am a bit of a comic book/Japanimation/sci-fi geek," Ne-Yo says, not sheepishly, after previewing the album for Rolling Stone at Def Jam's Manhattan office. "I've been in love with this stuff for years, since before I was double digits."
So the 30-year-old singer, born Schaeffer Smith, took his passion for latex-suited superbeings and applied it — loosely — to Libra Scale. "The whole idea to do this for my fourth came from not doing an album in '09 because I was doing two movies, learning how to write for the screen," he says. "And then, the inspiration was furthered by Michael Jackson's passing, looking at 'Thriller,' 'Moonwalker,' 'Bad.' Those were more than just videos — those were movies."
Initially, Ne-Yo had dreams of making a companion 45-minute mini-movie to be packaged with the album, but time and cost became insurmountable obstacles, so he'll settle for a series of extended music videos. A graphic novel may be in the works, too. But even without those visuals, Libra Scale plays like another stellar Ne-Yo album, rich in melody and yearning, with a high-toned pop appeal.
On lead single "Beautiful Monster," he re-teams with StarGate, the Norwegian production duo that has supplied some of his biggest, best hits, including his first, 2006's "So Sick" and 2008's "Miss Independent." Other producers include Chuck Harmony, from Ne-Yo's in-house team, Compound Entertainment, who handles the groove-centric "One in a Million." Luke Laird, a Nashville veteran who has worked with Tim McGraw and Carrie Underwood, chips in the stunning acoustic guitar-led ballad "She Is."
"I listen to country music — I like country music," Ne-Yo says. "I feel that's one of the last genres of music where storytelling is a staple. 'She Is' definitely lives in that world."
Broadening his base — to country fans and nerds alike — is a strategic move for the sometime songwriter who has written hits for Beyoncé, Rihanna, and Mary J. Blige, and seen all three of his albums go platinum. He's not satisfied with his success, and will do whatever it takes to become his own sort of Superman.
"Literally, I'm trying to please all of the people all of the time," he says. "I know people have said it's impossible, but damnit, I feel like I can do it."