The Return

Ne-Yo's songwiting leads him back to performing

December 28, 2006|By Rashod D. Ollison | Rashod D. Ollison,[Sun Pop Music Critic ]

NE-YO NEEDS A MOMENT TO catch his breath. The past year has been a whirlwind one for the R&B-pop star: His first album to see the light of CD shops, In My Own Words, entered at No. 1 on the pop charts in March and has sold 3 million copies around the world. This month, he was nominated for a pair of Grammys, for best contemporary R&B album and best male R&B performance.

On the same day he found out about the nominations, Beyonce's "Irreplaceable," a song he co-wrote, hit No. 1 on the charts. A day later in a brief ceremony, the Arkansas-born artist was given the key to Las Vegas, the city where he grew up.

But Ne-Yo, whose real name is Shaffer Smith, stays humble about it all.

"I'm one of the few artists who realizes this business is fickle," says the performer, one of the headliners on the Scream Tour, which stops at 1st Mariner Arena on Saturday night. "I don't focus on the hype. Today it's me; tomorrow it's somebody else."

Although he's only 24, Ne-Yo isn't exactly an instant success. Before topping the pop charts with In My Own Words and the melodic melancholic single "So Sick," the artist briefly struggled to establish himself as a performer. Just prior to conquering the pop charts, he was signed to Columbia Records, but the relationship soured before the company released any material. ("They wanted me to be somebody I was not," Ne-Yo says flatly.) So he concentrated on his songwriting career, which started to bloom in the late '90s when he wrote Tyrese's hit slow jam, "Sweet Lady."

But Ne-Yo's industry stock shot up after writing Mario's "Let Me Love You," one of the biggest pop hits of last year. He decided to give solo stardom another shot and inked a deal with Def Jam Records.

"I already had money when I got in this business," says Ne-Yo, whose other early songwriting credits include hits for Youngstown, Marques Houston and Christina Milian. "I wasn't going to be a puppet. I could continue writing. I got a lot of creative control on this album. I wanted to do a more traditional R&B album."

While the production of In My Own Words is decidedly contemporary with polished, mostly programmed instrumentation, the "traditional" aspect comes from Ne-Yo's melodic songwriting. Each of the album's 12 cuts is memorable and lyrically thoughtful. The songs generally explore the unexpected twists and sensual delights of young love. Ne-Yo's smooth approach was influenced by the music his mother played: the jazz-kissed R&B of Anita Baker, the champagne soul of Luther Vandross.

"My mom was my hero when I was growing up, so whatever music she was into, I was into," Ne-Yo says.

Unlike the other teen heartthrobs with which the artist is usually grouped (Chris Brown, Omarion, Mario and that ilk), Ne-Yo's approach is more mature. And unlike his peers, he writes his own material, mostly eschewing hip-hop beats for easy, silken melodies.

"R&B is supposed to evoke some emotion," says Ne-Yo, who comes off as warm and self-assured over the phone. "As vast as the English language is, how can you write a song about nothing?"

Oh, it's amazing how many folks do just that. But Ne-Yo says he sticks with what works best for him: strong melodies and substantive lyrics.

His next album, due out in the spring, will build on the approach of In My Own Words.

"I do what I do," he says. "If you like it, you like it. If you don't, you don't. I just do what comes to me. Overall, I'm just trying to do me."

See Ne-Yo as part of Scream Tour 5, which also features Mario, Omarion, Yung Joc and Pretty Ricky, at 1st Mariner Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St., Saturday night at 7. Tickets are $28-$43 and are available through Ticketmaster by calling 410-547-SEAT or going to

ticketmaster.com.

rashod.ollison@baltsun.com

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