Eight years ago, Shaffer Smith was just some guy from Las Vegas, albeit one quietly plotting a musical revolution.
In 1999, still in his teens, he’d written material for a now-forgotten boy band named Youngstown. By 2004, though, Smith had become Ne-Yo. His transition went largely unnoticed because, even though his breakthrough song, “Let Me Love You,” peaked at No. 1 on five separate Billboard charts, it was performed by Mario. At the time, Mario was basking in the glow of pop success on TRL and BET, but looking back, being “Ne-Yo the unknown” had its perks.
“One of the good things about being a writer,” Ne-Yo said recently from his hotel room in Jamaica, “is you can make just as much money as the artists you’re writing for and not have to deal with the personal issues they deal with. You can be a regular person. As an artist you almost can’t be a regular person, at least not without an audience of 50 million people.”
He can speak on this because, in 2006, Ne-Yo the songwriter became Ne-Yo the recording artist. His song “So Sick” - just one of his songs that tightropes between ballad and uptempo track - also hit No. 1 and launched him into a career as a frontman.
The debut album that carried that single, “In My Own Words,” was aptly titled because it announced Ne-Yo as one of the new great R&B songwriters. Yet Ne-Yo, who takes his name after Keanu Reeves’ character in “The Matrix,” didn’t initially see it that way.
“It took some getting used to. I wasn’t shy, just very accustomed to being in the background and people not being concerned about who I was or my name. Nobody cared about me. I was the dude behind the dude. The first person that asked for my autograph I literally asked, `Why?’ She was like, `Because you’re Ne-Yo.’ I was like, `I guess I am, aren’t I?’ I never looked at myself like a celebrity. I looked at myself like you or the dude standing next to you. We’re all people, that’s how I view it.”
These days people are requesting more than autographs: Whitney Houston, Celine Dion and Britney Spears are among the bankable artists for whom Ne-Yo is scheduled to create songs.
While there is often a schmaltzy, occasionally hokey kind of “A-B-C-1-2-3” approach to Ne-Yo’s songs - “When You’re Mad,” for example, is a self-explanatory ditty about how sexy his beloved looks when angry - nearly all his songs are instantly catchy and built around sturdy bridges, choruses and hooks. Put it this way: If you hear a Ne-Yo song, it’s very easy to find yourself snapping your fingers to it, remembering key parts and, yes, finding the song stuck in your head later in the day. That’s why people from Beyonce (“Irreplaceable”) to Rihanna (“Unfaithful”) and now Michael Jackson have rung the 24-year-oldfor a guaranteed hit.
“I never thought it would happen this way. As far as getting to work with Michael, if it happens - he’s moving around and I’m moving around, but we’re really trying to find a way to make that happen - but just knowing I might have the opportunity is a dream come true. There are only a few other people I could put in that category.”
He just kicked off a tour in support of his latest album, “Because of You.” It’s his second album in two years, which seems in line with a trend of contemporary singers who churn out new albums so fast that their previous material has hardly had time to feel old. Is that just how he works? Is he that inspired? Is he just trying to strike while the iron is hot?
“It’s all the above. The way the business is, people love you one second and then hate you the next millisecond of that same second. It’s definitely smart to strike while the iron is hot. At the same time, I go to the studio every day and knock out three to four songs a day, be it for me or someone else. And it’s fun for me. It’s something that I love to do.”
Of course, singing and performing the fruits of his labor has its downside. “I miss being able to get up and go to the movies. Now if I want to go to the movies it’s a big production. We’ve got to call security, call ahead to the theater, use the back entrance. It’s so much drama.”
He recently tried to see “Grindhouse.” “I let my people know I wanted to go, and it just turned into this big thing. You have to wake people up out their beds and stuff. I said, `For all this, I don’t want to go anymore.’ Before then I hadn’t been to the movies since `King Kong.’ Next time, I should just sneak in.”
Hey, it works for Michael Jackson.