Ne-Yo is generally pretty good at shaking off his Internet haters, but he admits being bothered by one particular criticism — a claim that he abandoned his musical roots.
The accusations played a role in the direction Ne-Yo takes on his latest album, Non-Fiction. “One of the very few things that I actually read about myself on blogs that got to me was people saying, ‘Ne-Yo doesn’t do R&B music anymore,'” the singer tells Yahoo Music. “Just because I stepped off the porch to explore, doesn’t mean I don’t live in that house anymore. You always come home. R&B is my home. It’s who I am. It’s who I’ve been. It’s the first genre I feel in love with. It’s the reason why I’ve been able to do other genres of music. With this album, I needed to remind my R&B fans of who I am and what I do. I wanted to tackle every aspect of R&B.”
There’s no denying Ne-Yo’s huge commercial success with the EDM-flavored songs “Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself)” and “Give Me Everything,” his No. 1 collaboration with Pitbull, Afrojack, and Nayer. And he’s included a couple similar tracks on Non-Fiction. But, as stated, the rest of the album explores a variety of R&B stylings. The album intro and title track take on the feel of a ’70s Blaxploitation score; “Coming With You” delivers nostalgic 1990s dance grooves; and “Congratulations” is a classic 1980s soul ballad.
Ne-Yo also took his fans into consideration during the songwriting process. “I just wanted to incorporate them this time,” he says about involving his listeners. “Instead of sitting down and waiting to be fed, I was like, ‘Why don’t y’all help me cook?’ This is album number six. For me to be here at album number six, it’s kind of a way to say, ‘Thank you for allowing me to be here … to still be around.'”
Ne-Yo doesn’t take his status as one of music’s most consistent performers and songwriters of the last 10 years for granted. Before he released his 2006 Def Jam debut album, In My Own Words, his career nearly stalled during a stint signed to Columbia Records. Although he wrote and recorded music for the label, it was never released, prompting his management to get him out of his recording contract. But the experience wasn’t all bad: It inadvertently launched his songwriting career when Marques Houston ended up recording his song “That Girl.”
“When my managers got me out of my deal, one of the terms of the deal is that all of the songs I did for the label stayed there,” Ne-Yo recalls. “Fast-forward a few months, I’m driving down the street and my song comes on the radio. I was thinking, ‘Oh, s—, this is my song… Wait a minute, that ain’t me.’ I instantly called my managers and figured out what happened. The song got sold to [Houston]. I eventually got what was owed to me, but it was kinda bittersweet because my music is on the radio, but it was just another reminder that I was back at square one.” (Hear Ne-Yo’s version.)
Despite the mixed emotions, Ne-Yo tried to keep an optimistic outlook. “I’ve always been the person to look at any turmoil as temporary,” he explains. “I recall times where my mom was working five and six jobs and there’s still no food in the house.”
Those kinds of tough life lessons helped Ne-Yo cope when his unsigned singing group scored a performance on the Apollo and bombed. “When the Apollo thing happened, we were destroyed,” he remembers. “We walked into the building like, ‘We got this. We know what we about to do.’ We got up there and had to eat a big slice of humble pie. These are the things that build character. The whole Columbia Records thing, I basically got shelved. That was probably my lowest feeling, like, I’m right at the door and the door got slammed in my face. My attitude was, ‘This is what’s going on right now, but this can’t stay this way forever. The next opportunity is right around the corner. Let me stop sulking.'”
Clearly he was right. Twelve years later, he’s got one of the best music success stories of the millennium.