NEW YORK - Ne-Yo is on a mission to bring a certain kind of classy back with his third album. Inside Legacy Recording Studios - an oasis from the tourist bustle of Times Square - the R&B star is queuing up cuts from "Year of the Gentleman," his new album out today, and laying out his master plan to revive elegance in urban music.
"With this one I'm trying to show cats what it is to be a gentleman again," he says, reclining in the room where he recorded his Grammy-winning 2007 album, "Because of You." "That there's something about understanding what it is to dress for the occasion, something about understanding that a lady is to be respected at all times."
Dressed casually in a white T-shirt, black jeans, and Kangol cap for a day of interviews, Ne-Yo still exudes a natty kind of cool his idol Sammy Davis Jr. would have recognized.
"I remember [my mom] brought home the Rat Pack [records], and I just instantly clicked with that whole vibe," says the man born Shaffer Smith of growing up with a mother who worked the casinos in Las Vegas. "They were just the coolest cats in the room, just because, not because they were trying to be."
If Rat Pack ring-a-ding-ding is the style and attitude Ne-Yo is after, the other piece of the puzzle is the urban dance-floor shimmer of early '80s Michael Jackson, on whose comeback album Ne-Yo is working. ("I have no idea," he says with a laugh about a potential release date.)
Sporting a courtly image has certainly worked for the singer-songwriter whose chivalrous approach has translated to a certain sparkle in more than a dozen hits he has penned for himself ("So Sick," "Because of You") and for others (Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable," Rihanna's "Unfaithful") over the past four years. Four Ne-Yo-penned tracks now reside in the Billboard Pop 100: his own "Closer" and "Miss Independent," Rihanna's "Take a Bow," and his duet with the New Kids on the Block, "Single."
"Gentleman," on which Ne-Yo wrote all the songs and collaborated with producers like Polow Da Don, Chuck Harmony, and longtime partners Stargate, retains the sleek, pop-soul sonics of Ne-Yo's previous efforts but also heads off in a few new directions.
"I think that one of the key elements of being a gentleman is diversity, to be the kind of cat that can rock with anybody," he says, amping up his stump speech like a seasoned politician. "The music on this album is something for everybody. For the cat that listens to straight urban, there's a song on there for him. For the cat that dabbles in the pop world, there's a song on there for him. For the guy that listens to, I don't know, Daughtry, that doesn't even know my name, there's a song on the album for you."
And with that, Ne-Yo presses play at the soundboard and explains the inspiration behind some of the songs on "Gentleman":
"Stop This World"
On this dreamy, pulsating, Stevie Wonder-meets-the-Beatles piano ballad produced by Chuck Harmony, Ne-Yo sings wistfully of a love that makes him feel as light as a feather.
"I don't know if this is just me, but whenever I find myself in a blissful situation, I can never just live in that bliss, I'm always focusing on when it's going to end. So that song is about being so very much in love with a person that you feel that it could literally stop the world from spinning. And wouldn't that just be the perfect thing to happen: The world stops spinning and everybody dies and the love is over. [Laughs.] I knew that as far as the [musically] alternative route that I wanted to go that I couldn't go all the way there because it wouldn't be believable. And that's absolutely the same with pretty much every genre of music that I tried to touch on."
The first single, and a Top 10 hit, produced by Stargate, is an upbeat dance track whose chilly groove took some fans by surprise.
"I knew I wanted to do something that was very much UK-inspired, very much along the lines of house, trance, techno, but I knew I couldn't do a straight-up house record or a straight-up techno record. I had to do something that had elements of it but still had elements of R&B, which is my base, and that's exactly what that track was. [Stargate] played the track, and it was exactly where I wanted to go, anyway. I think that's why we work. We're getting to the point where we finish each other's sentences musically."
The new single has all the Ne-Yo hallmarks, from its combination of languid keyboards and jittery rhythms to its celebration of powerful women.
" 'Miss Independent' is very much a core Ne-Yo fan song. I knew that I threw them something that they had to wrap their minds around [with 'Closer'], so now that we've done that let's remind them that I still got you, it's still me, I'm just trying new things. This song is an ode to my mom, my grandmother, my aunts, and all the women all over the world like them - women that can do it themselves and make no apologies for who they are. They're strong because they're strong, love it or leave it."
This breezy club jam clearly takes inspiration from Jackson in its insistent keyboards and Ne-Yo's explosive exhalations and murmured sweet nothings.
"Every album I try to do one song paying homage to one of the men responsible for why it is I do what I do. I hated my singing voice when I first started singing because my mom used to listen to Billy Ocean and Smokey Robinson, people like that with these very distinctive, very smoky kind of heavy voices. I didn't have that; I had a really high, tinny, nasally voice, so I hated it, so my mom gave me Michael Jackson's 'Off the Wall' and Stevie Wonder's 'Hotter Than July.' She said, 'Study these artists because they have a similar timbre to your own,' and that's what I did. [Jackson] definitely let it be known that he's a fan of what I do, which is the world to me. There is no greater compliment."
"Lie to Me"
A gripping ballad that finds the singer showing off a grittier, more emotional side to his voice as he deals with his anguish over an infidelity. Based, unfortunately, on a true story.
"I've realized that my place in this whole music thing is to say things for men that men either can't say or won't say. So that song basically depicts a man at his weakest state. This man is very much in love with this young lady, and he finds out that she's cheating on him and is just murderous that he's saying to her, 'I don't want to know what I already know is true. So what I need you to do is tell me another lie.' I like to make music that you can see."
Correction: Because of an editing error, the name Ne-Yo was incorrectly capitalized in the headline accompanying an interview with the singer in yesterday's Living/Arts section.