Ne-Yo bounded onto the R&B scene back in 2005 with his breezy debut single “Stay,” featuring Peedi Peedi. At the time, Ciara had the whole world dancing to “1, 2 Step” and T-Pain’s melodic Auto-Tune helped him break through charts with “I’m Sprung.”
Still, in the midst the cheeky dance tracks and gritty hip-hop club anthems, a la 50 Cent’s “Candy Shop,” Ne-Yo’s knack for effortless storytelling and songwriting radiated throughout his catalog and radio airwaves and catapulted the then-rookie to R&B greatness, as he later lent his songwriting skills to music’s elite names, from Rihanna and Beyonce to Usher and more.
Yet over a decade later, Ne-Yo’s ability to craft indelible ballads hasn’t wavered, even in an era where R&B music leans more to the trap side and the Billboard Hot 100 has become a dwelling for SoundCloud rappers.
“I feel like I owe that to not worrying about trends or what’s cool or whatever’s popping at the moment and keeping with the essentials and the basics music,” he tells Billboard over the phone, just days after welcoming his newborn son. “Music is supposed to make you feel something or evoke some type emotion, be it joy or sorrow or even anger, and melody and the right lyrics have the power to do that -- those are the things I focus on. I guess I’m doing something right because I’m still here.”
After a brief hiatus and moment self-reflection, the R&B vet returned with his 11th studio album, Good Man, earlier this month, which chronicles the ebb and flow relationships. Centered on the narrative maturity, Ne-Yo says it took meeting his wife, Crystal Smith -- who inspired the entire album -- for him to become “a man worthy being with her" and a "Good Man."
Below, Billboard caught up with the R&B vet to discuss his growth over the years, new album Good Man and which R&B newbies are on his radar.
Congratulations on your new baby!
Thank you. It feels good, man. He’s healthy, wife is healthy, everything is great.
It’s been over 10 years since you released your debut single “Stay.” How does it feel looking back at your musical career and all you’ve accomplished since your debut?
It feels good to still be at least somewhat relevant so many years later. I feel like I owe that to not worrying about trends or what’s cool or whatever’s popping at the moment, and keeping with the essentials and the basics. Music is supposed to make you feel something or evoke some type emotion, be it joy or sorrow or even anger, and melody and the right lyrics have the power to do that -- those are the things I focus on. That being said, I guess I’m doing something right because I’m still here.
Is there anything you would've done differently in your career?
To be honest, no. Everything that has happened over the time that I’ve been in the business, it all happened for a reason; it all happened because it was supposed to and it got me to where I am now. I can truly and honestly say I’m in a happy and serene and stable place right now, from my personal life to my business life to music. I’m in a really good place and if I was to go back and change anything who’s to say I’d be here? I don’t live with regrets, it’s all for a reason.
Which brings me to the album intro, which centers on the story the caterpillar. Then “The Struggle” interlude focuses on embracing the struggle and mishaps in life. What’s the significance that story in relation to the entire album?
The whole unspoken storyline to the album is about transition, transformation, and evolution. The caterpillar story is kind self-explanatory -- every butterfly was a caterpillar first -- and then we have the background sound fellas running around being caterpillars with multiple women, partying, the whole nine. The first couple songs kind live in that world and as we progress and get to the end, we hope to get to that butterfly phase where you’ve made the decision to genuinely give a damn about somebody else, to not be selfish, to be responsible and accountable for somebody else’s feelings and emotions. The album just speaks on the struggle that happens; it’s not easy to get this place physically, mentally, and emotionally where you make the spiritual decision to be a good man and then on top that, it’s not easy to stay there.
What brought you to this reflective state?
The two to three years that I took f are kind reflected on this album. In that two to three years, I met my wife, we got married, had two more kids and being with the woman that I’m with kind forced me to self-reflect a little about who I was before I got here and why things went the way that they went. It was a major inspiration for the song “Apology” where I’m basically apologizing to all the woman who had to suffer the "boy" who was supposed to be a man and all the hearts that were broken in order for me to be who I am today to my wife. It’s a very vulnerable place to be, to be honest, it’s really difficult to look at yourself in the mirror and accept the fact that a lot the drama that you went through was self-inflicted. Acknowledging that, yes, I’ve made some bad decisions is not an easy thing to do and I think it speaks to maturity and that’s something that we all have to do at some point – we all have to mature.
How did you get to this place being comfortable with being vulnerable?
Well, it took being with my wife and realizing who I want to be to her and realizing I can’t be that person still holding on to who I was. That’s not to say I was a complete piece shit or nothing like that but I definitely wasn’t a man worthy being with her and I told myself if I wanna be with this woman forever then I gotta show her something else, which meant that I had to grow up and get away from that mindset thinking, 'Well, what can I get away with when she’s not around,' getting away from that selfishness and setting that aside to really prioritize her.
I kind feel like you’re the person all your friends come to for relationship advice. Are you that person?
I absolutely am that person, which makes it even more hectic when things go wrong with me because they’re looking at me like, ‘You’re supposed to have it all together!’
“LA Nights” has such a cool, breezy LA vibe to it. Was it recorded there?
That song was definitely recorded in LA, majority the album was. I’m glad you feel that good vibe on the song because that’s exactly what I was going for with that record because I wanted to bring people in to what a typical day or night in LA feels like. I remember LA nights when I was running around, still in the caterpillar phase doing stuff that single men or men pretending to be single do. That song in particular, was one that if you decided to ignore the story completely, it was still a bop.
You went international on the album with the features, like “Nights Like These” with Romeo Santos. How’d that happen?
Romeo Santos and I are both Universal artists and I happen to know some the people that work for his team and they basically reached out and told me they wanted to do some work. I’ve been a Romeo Santos fan for a while, from the “Aventura” days and beyond so when they told me that, I was all for it. We linked up and I realized very early on that we’re like-minded in the realm music and how we feel about the industry and purpose in this life in general and that made for an easy, laid-back, and cool recording session. "Nights Like These” was the end result.
What was it like working with PartyNextDoor?
I actually reached out to Party. I knew going into this record that the industry had changed a little bit, the sound changed, the language changed – especially the language the millennials – and I realized that I was gone for a minute and I wasn’t up on all the lingo so I reached out to cats that I felt spoke that language. I wanted everyone to receive the message on this album, be it cats in my age range down to the millennials. Party’s contribution to the album was a lot more than what’s on the surface; Party had a lot to do with the “LA Nights’ record, the “Hotbox” record and course, he loaned his voice to the “On Ur Mind” record, too. He’s dope, he’s always been dope.
Party has a knack for Caribbean-flavored songs. Was it his idea to use that kind beat for “On Your Mind”?
Nah, I heard the track and it already had that vibe to it so I started writing and putting ideas together and then I remember hearing a couple Party’s records at the time I was writing the song and he just felt like a good addition to the record. I reached out to him, he was all for it and showed a lot love and the rest was all history.
What made Bebe Rexha and Stefflon Don such a perfect fit for “Push Back”?
So when I finished “Push Back,” initially it was just me by myself, I liked it but I didn’t love it. The song had potential but there was absolutely something missing and it was something that I couldn’t put my finger on. I sat on the record for a little while before I realized the record needed girl power -- that’s the one thing that I cannot produce. An A&R friend mine actually reached out to Bebe. I’ve been following her journey and what she’s accomplished up until this point and I like that she’s kind a chameleon -- she can do something pop, she can turn around and do a hook on a hip-hop record, then turn around and have a hit song with Florida Georgia Line.
Then, the song has a reggae feel to it and a friend mine suggested Stefflon Don and she’s another one who I’ve been following. I reached out to her and it was all love from the very beginning and again the rest was history. The song isn’t the same without either one them.
On “Over U," you’re not afraid to get a little crazy and show up at your girl’s crib to fight for your love.
So records like “Over U” and “Without U” – both them by Stargate – are records that were written at some the happiest times in my relationship but I knew I couldn’t do the whole album in this happy place because as much as the music is for me, it’s also for my fans and everybody ain’t living my life so I couldn’t be selfish like that. “Over U” specifically, I started thinking like if my wife were to ever leave me, how would I respond? What would I do? That’s where the lyrics to “Over U” came from. I’ve never saw myself stalking anyone before but I’m not letting my wife get away, we gotta work this thing out.
So is that how you create most songs? if it doesn’t directly happen to you, you’re able to imagine situations that others may go through?
I have before. I’ve learned that writing from personal experiences almost always come out better than the songs where I have to make it up but in this instance, it was made up because me and my wife are very much together. However, there was real emotion put into that record because if my wife were to ever try to leave me, I would definitely fight for our relationship. It’s wasn’t as fictitious as I’ve done before, the emotion as real even though the situation wasn’t.
Switching gears a bit, you’ve written a lot hits from the 2000s era, from Rihanna’s "Unfaithful" and "Take a Bow" to Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” and more. What do remember about creating those songs?
Well, I initially wrote “Irreplaceable” with the intention singing it myself. “Irreplaceable” is the story one my aunts that I grew up in and I remember she was taking care this dude -- bought him a car at a time when she didn’t even have a car -- and she was so in love and then she found out dude was rolling around in the car with another girl. One day, he came by the house looking for something and she told him, ’Everything you own is in the box over there’ and how the song played out is exactly how it did in real life.
I was originally gonna flip it into a song for myself but when I was finished with it, it didn’t feel right coming from me. Even if I was valid enough to say, 'I could have another you in a minute, she’ll be here in a minute,' that just sounds mean. Laughs] I decided to take it back to what it originally was and have a female sing it so we reached out to a few people who turned it down and Beyonce came through and did what she did.
Who are some the newer R&B artists on your radar right now?
I’m a huge fan Daniel Caesar, I really love his vibe. I like where he comes from musically because I feel like he was raised on the greats, you can hear it in his music. H.E.R, I really like what she does. I’m a huge fan Ella Mai -- I remember hearing “Boo’d Up” almost a year ago -- and I love what SZA did with her album CTRL, she’s been dope for a long time but people are just now catching on. The pendulum is swinging back to R&B, it’s swinging slow but it’s swinging back because people want to feel something again.
After over a decade in the music game, what would you say you're still bringing to the R&B scene that's different from what’s out there?
I am walking, talking, living, breathing, emotion – that’s all I’ve ever been about since I started music. I could give a damn about what’s cool or trendy, I could give a damn about people thinking I’m cool, I’m not in this for that. I didn’t get into the music industry to be a heartthrob or make a million dollars, I make music because I love music – it’s woven into my DNA. I don’t know what I’d do with myself without it, that’s why I still make music and I feel like you can hear that when you listen.