[4 November 2008]
It’s fair to say that Ne-Yo is pop/R&B’s “it” guy of the moment. As a songwriter, he’s had an almost unstoppable half-decade run of hits, starting with Mario’s smash #1 Let Me Love You and continuing through songs written for everyone from Mary J. Blige and Celine Dion to Beyonce. Following in the footsteps of singing/writing threats like Babyface, Ne-Yo’s risen to the top by being aware of the power of melody and being able to write about relationships with a real-life perspective, something you can’t really take for granted in this era of pop music.
That resume would be enough for most folks, but Ne-Yo has also pursued a successful second career as a singer. His first two albums enjoyed platinum success, culminating in a Grammy win earlier this year for his sophomore effort, Because of You. Ne-Yo brings the same classicist’s touch to his singing that he does to his songwriting. While he has hip-hop appeal (and has collaborated with his share of rappers), the singer he most resembles is Off the Wall-era Michael Jackson. However, his albums, which have been pretty decent-to-mediocre so far, have only hinted at MJ-esque greatness…
…Until now. Year of the Gentleman is a pleasant surprise, to say the least. You’d expect there to be some burnout, considering not only Ne-Yo’s heavy songwriting workload, but also the fact that this is his third album in less than three years. However, this turns out to be his sharpest set of songs. Always a talented writer, Ne-Yo takes a huge step forward on this album with a series of emotionally honest and affecting songs, that are a welcome reprieve from the simple (and often crass) sentiments that have plagued contemporary R&B for the past decade and a half.
If you’ve the heard first single “Closer”, you may have been surprised by its sound, closer to dance music than R&B. Ne-Yo made noises about Year of the Gentleman marking a different sound for him. I think of it more as an expansion of his sound than a complete departure. Elements of electro and rock pop up in various places, but this is still completely palatable to the everyday young R&B fan.
The album is almost totally mid-tempo, but there are a few tracks that liven up the pace. Ne-Yo pays tribute to his biggest influence with “Nobody”, which will have you checking the album credits for a Michael Jackson appearance. Granted, just about every male vocalist in pop right now is channeling Jackson, but this song is the closest anyone has come to capturing the true essence of the King of Pop. “So You Can Say” is not as danceable, but its breezy flavor and Ne-Yo’s airy falsetto again call to mind Jackson.
If a couple of songs on this album sound familiar, your mind isn’t playing tricks on you. The synth-fest “Miss Independent” is totally calculated to suck up to Ne-Yo’s large female fan base, but you can forgive him with a song this good. Meanwhile, Ne-Yo also offers up a solo version of his current New Kids on the Block duet “Single”. It may surprise you to hear this, but the song sounds half-finished without the New Kids’ involvement.
As one would expect from a singer-songwriter, Year of the Gentleman’s biggest triumph comes in the lyrics. It sounds like he has undergone his fair share of heartbreak recently. The album is largely downcast from a lyrical standpoint. I’m not complaining. The melancholy gives songs like “Fade Into the Background” and “Why Does She Stay” a three-dimensional feel. You can picture Ne-Yo in the role of the good guy who gets left behind on the former song or the guy who can’t understand why his woman puts up with his ways on the latter song. He pulls out all the dramatic stops on the forceful, angry “Lie To Me”, in which he advises a cheating lover to purposefully pull the wool over his eyes, because he just might pull an O.J. if her philandering is brought out into the open. He may not be much of an actor (at least not from what we’ve seen in a couple of minor film roles), but I bet Ne-Yo could write one hell of a script.
It’s always good to pick up an album with modest expectations and find yourself pleasantly surprised by the quality of the music. That’s exactly what happened with Ne-Yo’s Year of the Gentleman. While the man always showed promise, this album is where that promise bears the most fruit. Year of the Gentleman proves that a contemporary artist can appeal to the youth while still writing songs that are lyrically substantial enough for the older folks to appreciate.