It will blow up if it flirts with pop. Poppa Jay-Z smiles as singer and songwriter Ne-Yo proves a worthy investment.
A couple of months ago, Jay-Z paid a rare visit to BET's 106 & Park. Instead of announcing a retirement from retirement, or promoting pivotal personal business, he kept mum and sat alongside a new Def Jam draft pick. The V.I.P. of the day was a singer; a handsome young man that appeared no different from the parade of chart-toppers that regularly pass through the soundstage. And, like so many before him, the singer dressed the part, charmed the audience, and invited one special (i.e., teenage) someone up for her fifteen minutes (with him). In this manner, the script practically wrote itself, until the singer asked the jubilant fan to cite why everyone had to purchase three copies of his album. Without hesitation, she replied: One for her father's home, one for her mother's home, and one for driving. In that moment, it became clear why President S. Carter paid the kids a visit that afternoon: to co-sign on the success of pop's latest star.
Such is the appeal of Shaffer "Ne-Yo" (pronounced "Nee-Yoh") Smith's music: neo soul with that teenage feeling. Captivating aesthetically and marketable as commodity, he has proven savvy at selling soul by the line. He showed pop potential before showing his face when he penned Mario's effective hit "Let Me Love You", in addition to songs for bona fide stars like Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans, and Musiq. When he stepped out on his own late last year, listeners responded again. Last fall's radio staple "So Sick" hardly challenged the annual deluge of prom fluff with its breezy melody and lean arrangement, but its angst-ridden concept -- post-breakup trauma exacerbated by excessive FM love lines -- gave Ne-Yo the needed veneer of a gritty exterior and soulful interior to set himself apart from the pack.
In this sense his major label debut, In My Own Words, is a notable success. With spare but clean, rounded yet consistent production, the album has an appealing azure quality fit for those down-in-the-Calgary-dumps times. Ne-Yo takes a cue from the late great Marvin and implores listeners to dance (and fuck) away the blues: tumbling floor toms, Zapp-ish tweets, and medieval scratches lend "Stay" a fresh-grown'n sexy flavor, while swallowing bass tongues hiccup through the strut-worthy "It Just Ain't Right". Admittedly, Ne-Yo's lyric-writing is hardly the stuff of legends -- choice moments include: "It Just Ain't Right"'s "Ever reminisce on us on the bathroom floor"; "When You're Mad"'s rhyme of "Could it be the little wrinkle over your nose" and "That makes me want to take off all your clothes"; and the requisite volcano cliché within the first 30 seconds of "Sexy Love". However, his robust man-child voice tempers the redundancy of heartache and makes the album a plausible listen.
While sound backs much of the album's content, its marketing campaign admittedly sinks the coveted clutch shot. From the fist-shaking independence of its title, to the poster-ready quality of its cover (a soft focus close-up of a boy-on-the-verge-of-becoming-a-man, as identified by the pencil-thin moustache, superimposed over lines of his own lyrics... because he is a writer... who writes his own songs), the album begs to be kept underneath the pillow alongside the diary/journal of an achy-breaky teen. In this sense, Ne-Yo works his angles sharp and precise, dilating the pupils of his fanbase with images of "sexing you all over the floor" -- ideas as preposterous, yet telling, as a barely legal (to drive; and from New York City, no less) talking about buying CDs for her "ride". In My Own Words captures these grandiose dreams, oversimplified generalizations, and lascivious fantasies with surprising clarity. And Jigga and the cats at Def Jam know it. But don't worry: the kid redeems himself on one track, the righteous Ghostface collabo "Get Down Like That". Maybe there'll be time for a Version 2.0.