There was once a musical landscape that saw Grammy-winning crooner Ne-Yo (born Shaffer Smith) rule as king of the pen. Easily the most in-demand songwriter at the onset of his career and noughties overall, the R&B star was likened to the legendary Smokey Robinson for his ability to wield what seemed like unstoppable back to back hits (for stars of a spectrum of genres). As the lay of the land shifted over the last few years, so did the demand – an occurrence Smith exclusively tells That Grape Juice he is all too well aware.
After a bit of a break saw his last album, 2015’s ‘Non-Fiction,’ pencil in his lowest first week sales to date (click here to read more), the singer found himself on the same uphill climb his coveted pen once helped others out of. But, from where he stands with the success of a breakout NBC dance show, ‘World of Dance,’ and the all around critical acclaim surrounding the cuts lifted from his June 8th-due new album, ‘Good Man,’ the challenge is welcomed!
Look inside to read our exclusive sit-down with Ne-Yo as he discusses the “fight for relevancy,” the promise of hitting the road again, ‘World of Dance’ season 2, and so much more:
That Grape Juice (Sam): Loving your new single ‘Push Back.’ I know we’ve heard a few other songs from this project before it, but this sounds like the winner.
Ne-Yo: Yes! It’s a record about dancing. It’s about confident women dancing the way they dance and the way men enjoy to watch and participate. It’s a summertime record. You just put it on and your body involuntarily starts to move.
That Grape Juice: While others have gone down grittier routes, you’ve always touted the importance of being a “gentleman” – an ethos that is resonant on the title of this project, ‘Good Man.’ Talk to us a little about the title.
Ne-Yo: First of all, let me say that I’m in no way, shape, form or fashion “perfect,” trying to act like I am, or even that I’m better than anybody else. The purpose of this is to put the spotlight on what the journey of a good man is.
This album is just me trying to lead by example and show what it’s supposed to look like, what it’s supposed to sound like, show ladies what it’s supposed to feel like, and hope that the world follows suit.
That Grape Juice: You’ve worked with an eclectic list of names like PartyNextDoor, BeBe Rexha, Stefflon Don, and more. Who else should we expect?
Ne-Yo: We had DJ Camper do the ‘Good Man’ single, Stargate did ‘Push Back,’ Dr. Luke added some work, some names you’ve heard before and hopefully after this album comes out, names that you’ll hear again. But, for the most part, I kept it pretty much to the usual suspects..
I’ve never really been the guy that would move around searching for the big name producer.
The Grape Juice: We’ve been fortunate enough to hear some of the material – it’s very cohesive, yet varied. You’re even speaking a little Spanish. How does this project differ from previous Ne-Yo albums?
Ne-Yo: This one definitely took a little longer to put together because my life is not what it was before. I am currently married – two years strong, I have three children (and one on the way), so free time is few and far between for me as of late.
But, it’s almost good that it took a little longer because I knew what I wanted the overall project to feel like.
That Grape Juice: Busy, busy man!
Ne-Yo: Right. Plus, there’s not a lot of emotion in music right now, especially when you talk about Hip-Hop and R&B. All of it is pretty much talking about the same few things; drugs, money, sex. There’s nothing wrong with these things, I actually partake in a few of them.
However, there’s more to life, music, and other emotions inside of us that are not being fed and haven’t been fed for a very long time. I want to do that with this album.
The Grape Juice: Your list of accolades are incredible – three GRAMMY Awards and over a dozen nominations, three number one albums, and over 10M albums sold worldwide. Do you feel you have anything to prove – with this project and/or in general?
Ne-Yo: No, I don’t think I have anything to prove. I feel like that at this point, people know who I am, what I do, and what I’m about.
But, God has blessed me with a few other talents as well. I definitely want to get into the TV and film space, in front of the camera as well as behind. I’m learning how to write scripts now, learning how to direct, and all that. So, in the near future you will see some sort of visual entertainment written, produced and directed, and starring Ne-Yo.
That Grape Juice: What’s a challenge you’ve faced “behind the scenes” in the music industry that people would be surprised to hear?
Ne-Yo: The fight for relevancy, man. I took some time off for family, but the unfortunate thing about that is that two years away from the music industry nowadays is almost like 10 years in real time. There’s so much new music and new talent coming out every second of every day.
When I decided that I was gonna get back in with this new album, I really beat myself up a little bit about where I even fit. I’m older now and there’s a whole new generation that’s come up behind me that speak a language slightly different than the one I speak.
That Grape Juice: Very forthcoming of you to say. What’s your approach to this situation?
Ne-Yo: I don’t go into the creative process thinking about what’s gonna sell albums. It’s about going in, doing what you love because you love it and hoping that the world catches on. I’ve finally got to the place where I realized it’s not about fitting in, it’s about standing out.
That was one major issue for me, just trying to figure out my place in what’s happening now as a slightly aging entertainer. It’s a real concern.
The Grape Juice: You’ve written for a lot of acts, including the likes of Beyonce and Rihanna. The last time we spoke, you stressed you want to focus on new names. Is working with established names a route you’d re-explore?
Ne-Yo: Definitely in the pipeline. Not to say anything negative about any of those names but the same way that my career took turns, theirs did too. I, in no way, expected them to sit back and wait for me to get back in the musical space again so of course, they kept moving. But even with that being said, I know Rihanna personally and I have decent relationship with Beyonce. When the time for them to get back in and start producing music again, I’m sure I’ll get that call.
But, until then my focus is this ‘Good Man’ album that comes out June 8.
The Grape Juice: Last question: in ideal terms, what does the year ahead look like for Ne-Yo?
Ne-Yo: The month of June is gonna be especially special because my album and my son are both supposed to come in June, so I’m excited about that. We’re also putting together a touring schedule right now. Season 2 of ‘World of Dance’ hits NBC on May 29th (click here to read more on that).
Working, raising kids, and trying to be the best husband I can be all at the same time; not a lot of sleep, basically. I won’t be sleeping a lot this year.