You don't often find integrity in the music biz. So when R&B singer and songwriter Ne-Yo tells us it just wouldn't be right to hold onto a song he's promised to another artist, we're surprised and just a little skeptical.
"If everybody gets B-rated songs, and I keep all the A-rated songs for myself, what's the point of being a songwriter?" he asks. "That's not fair."
Ne-Yo has given away some great tunes over the years. He wrote Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable" and Rihanna's "Hate That I Love You." He has also penned songs for Mary J. Blige, Chris Brown, Janet Jackson, Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, and Céline Dion. He was hired to write them, and he turned them over to his millionaire clients without even a "Hey, ya think maybe I can keep this one for myself?"
"That's always difficult," he laughs. "If I go in the studio with the mindset of writing a song for a specific person, then whatever comes out of that session goes to that person — no matter how great the song is."
That honesty and reliability have paid off for the Las Vegas native. His two albums — 2006's In My Own Words and last year's Because of You — debuted at number one. His breakthrough single, "So Sick," also reached the top of the pop and R&B charts.
But it's been a slow climb for the guy born Shaffer Chimere Smith 28 years ago. In 1999, Ne-Yo was tapped to write songs for a fledgling boy band called Youngstown. The Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC were making tons of money off crushing teen girls. Youngstown was supposed to be just as big. It wasn't.
Finally, in 2004, R&B singer Mario made it to No. 1 with "Let Me Love You." Within two years, Rihanna ("Unfaithful"), Paula DeAnda ("Walk Away"), and Mario Vazquez ("Gallery") all scored hits with Ne-Yo–penned tunes.
Def Jam noticed Ne-Yo's winning streak and scooped him up as a solo artist. "It just fell in my lap this time," he says. But that deal initially came with some snags, too. "I'm not lying about my age anymore," he says, referring to the label's initial marketing of the singer as a teen phenom. Ne-Yo reluctantly complied: "When you're a new artist, it's best to be as young as you can."
After "So Sick" and In My Own Words both went platinum, Def Jam loosened its grip on its latest hitmaker. Ne-Yo continued writing songs for other artists. And scoring smashes. Rihanna recorded three of his tunes on last year's megaselling Good Girl Gone Bad.
Scan the list of famous people who've put money in Ne-Yo's pocket, and you'll notice that most of them are women: Christina Milian, Heather Headley, Leona Lewis, Nicole Scherzinger. His biggest hit, "Irreplaceable," is stacking up as the female anthem of the decade.
"In certain situations, men and women think a lot alike," he says. "The difference is, a woman will say it, whereas a man will just bottle it up and let pride take over."
Ne-Yo's third album — titled Year of the Gentleman and dropping in June — will get to the bottom of some of these manly issues. The singer says he went back, way back, for inspiration. "When I think of gentlemen, I think of people like Nat King Cole and the Rat Pack — Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., and Dean Martin," he says. "Dress to the nines, no matter where you're going or where you are — the coolest guy in the room without even trying to be the coolest guy in the room.
"I don't see that in R&B anymore," he concludes. "Everybody looks alike, with their jeans hanging off their ass, tennis shoes, and baseball caps. Back in the day, you couldn't get onstage unless you had a suit on. You couldn't call yourself a singer unless you looked the part. I'm trying to bring that smoothness back."