American R&B veterans hoping to reach a mainstream audience face a brutal slog. Rap dominates the market, reducing any singer’s chance of landing a hit. And within R&B, the landscape is harshly segmented by age – any singers above 30 not named Beyonce are automatically shunted to Urban Adult Contemporary radio, curtailing their audience.
This puts an artist like Ne-Yo, 36 and now on his seventh studio album, in a dangerous position. When he debuted over a decade ago, the singer turned heads with a series of strikingly weightless singles. Relying on a small range of sounds, often harpsichord-like riffs on a synth over chunky drum programming, and a considerable dose of melodic cunning, Ne-Yo crafted modern standards for himself (“So Sick,” “Because of You”) and others: He penned the toplines for Mario’s “Let Me Love You” and Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable,” both of which went Number One.
But what’s a master of feathery melody to do in a pop landscape flattened by trap and pulverizing SoundCloud rap? The bold move: Flip off the hegemony – an impressive recent example is Usher’s “Good Kisser,” which still sounds enticingly bizarre four years after its release. The safe move: Capitulate and make some trap records – see Usher’s “No Limit,” perfectly of-its-moment; profoundly unmemorable.
Ne-Yo chooses the second path, presumably hoping to sneak his records into mix-show play on the radio. Good Man is loaded with standard-issue rap/R&B hybrids, in which the singer floats his flexible voice over beats that grind and crack – “L.A. Nights,” “Breathe,” “Back Chapters,” “Over U.” Any streaming platform’s flagship R&B playlist is already filled with this stuff, and despite Ne-Yo’s admirable track record, on Good Man, he is unable to write his way out of the ordinary with another sterling hook.
The other major component of Good Man, more interesting if not more convincing, is a dollop of pan-Caribbean rhythms. Ne-Yo fares best on “Without U,” which wouldn’t be out of place in a DJ set containing Nicky Jam and J Balvin’s “X.” With more zip in the beat, the singer’s winning airiness returns.
But then comes “Apology,” a return to the trap sound, and once again, a heavy beat suppresses Ne-Yo’s gliding verve. It’s an old story: In his hunt for a hit, Ne-Yo ended up discarding much of what initially set him apart.