It’s been three years since Ne-Yo’s last proper album, Non-Fiction.
In that time, R&B has changed immensely. At a time, when it felt like the sound was already moving away from the traditional, vocally-focused aesthetic of his youth and the genre was waning in popularity as a whole, the singer-songwriter born Shaffer Smith steadfastly — maybe even stubbornly — stuck to his musical guns.
When he first debuted in 2006 with In My Own Words, a song like the Stargate-produced “So Sick” could peak at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and no one would bat an eye. Twelve years later, all the R&B singers are rapping, all the rappers think they can sing, and traditional R&B is being pigeonholed on “Adult Contemporary” stations alongside the formative hits of the last three decades.
No one would think to place Drake’s “Best I Ever Had” on an “old-school” station, but that’s exactly what’s happened to a number of Ne-Yo’s biggest hits. At one time a fixture on pop radio, the 38-year-old singer has seen the pendulum swing as far away from his throwback style as it possibly could.
But a funny thing has happened along the way: He’s stayed just relevant enough through other endeavors — songwriting, acting, production, and releasing music on his own to Soundcloud — that he’s lived long enough to see the pendulum swinging back thanks to strong efforts from artists like Solange, SZA, Leon Bridges, and Daniel Caesar which have tapped the same supposedly old-school traditions of R&B to create fresh, intimate soul sounds that have resonated with a burgeoning youth movement seeking to regain contact with Black cultural heritage.
That’s why it’s the perfect time for Ne-Yo to finally dip his feet back into the pool of developing talent as the elder statesman, hoping to teach these kids a thing or two while proving that he hasn’t lost a step with his latest album Good Man. While “Loyal” once dominated the airwaves, with movements like ##TimesUp and #MeToo seeking to return agency and dignity for women back to the public discourse, Ne-Yo’s “Good Man” single feels refreshing and new, while the reggae-themed “Push Back” feels timely as Drake and others have mined island sounds for their latest chart toppers.
There’s still space in the game for a singer of Ne-Yo’s vintage, especially as he seems to have found a way to make his latest efforts sound timely without trend-chasing. He’s not just pegging his hopes on a sudden switch-up, he’s evolving as an artist and as a person. In his own words, this is his journey to becoming a Good Man while finding his way back into the spotlight at just the right time.
Let’s talk about “Push Back” first. It’s such a break away from your usual trend of more traditional R&B. Can you tell me why you wanted to do a reggae, dancehall-influenced song for this album?
Yeah, so the album itself, the album is entitled Good Man. And that’s kind of a heavy subject, you know what I mean? It’s about the journey of a good man, just the things that it takes for a man to get to that place where he makes good decisions. To give a damn about somebody other than himself. You know, very heavy especially considering the climate right now. We’ve got this rape case and that sexual harassment case and the whole #TimesUp movement and everything. So it’s a little heavy. But with this particular record, I wanted to make sure that people knew and understood that the whole album is not going to be super heavy. There are definitely some moments in there to have a good time and let your hair down and not so much concern yourself with the lesson being taught, but just enjoy yourself. And that’s what this record was.
I am a huge fan of reggae. I am a huge fan of dancehall and just the whole Caribbean vibe and feel. It’s always a good feeling. Always a good, warm feeling. And the music makes the ladies dance, and I love to watch women dance. Especially confident women. So that’s what this song is about. It’s about confident women who get up and know how to move and have a good time. I feel like this is one of those records that when you put it on your body just sort of naturally does what it is supposed to do. It’s not even like you gotta think real hard about it. Kind of a no-brainer, so to speak.
Yeah, I do feel like every serious album needs at least one fun song.
Yeah. You got to.
How did you come to the decision to include Bebe Rexha and Stefflon Don because they’re not names that are really huge in the US right now. But Bebe Rexha is being called a pop disruptor and Stefflon Don is starting to break out outside of the UK. What made you want to put those two voices on there? Especially as female voices?
Well, I’ve always believed in the power of women. And a record like this where it’s about that confident woman that knows how to move I figured it would just make perfect sense to have a woman’s point of view on a song discussing this. As far as Stefflon Don I had been following her movements under the radar. Just checking out what she’s doing and really liking what she’s doing. Liking where things are going. She had the perfect style for what I wanted for this record. And then Bebe, again I love the fact that she’s a little bit of a chameleon. She had a record that was moving heavy in country. She’s doing major things in pop. One of the first times I saw her she was doing all rock versions of her songs for some festivals. She can do a little bit of everything. Plus I think that she’s really talented. I like her voice. She really cute. I feel like it just makes perfect sense.
So we reached out to her and she obliged and the rest is history man.
I really also enjoyed the title track of Good Man. I would like to hear the story of that song’s progression and how it came together.
There is really no right or wrong way to write a song. Sometimes the lyrics come first. Sometimes the music comes first. Sometimes both are kind of created simultaneously. In the case of this one, shout out to my man DJ Camper who produced it, he pretty much had the music all the way done when he brought it to me.
So DJ Camper had the record produced already. And I loved the way that he used the sample, the “Untitled” sample, the D’Angelo sample? I’m always telling any producer working for me, if you’re going to use a sample you gotta do something with it that almost makes us miss what the sample was. Or use it in a way that’s so creative that even if we catch what it is, we don’t mind because you created a new thing with it. I feel like that’s definitely what he did when he used the sample.
So I heard the track, instantly knew what I wanted to write about. The story of the song, this is one of the first conversations that me and my now wife ever really… one of the first real, kind of disruptive conversations that we had. I went into, this is our first date, and I went into the situation not as Ne-Yo but as plain old Shaffer. Meaning I didn’t wear a fedora. I was just a regular cat that night because I wanted to make sure that she was digging me for me and I could dig her for her. I wanted her to see the real me. I wanted to see the real her.
I went to her and I said I wanted to lay out all of our dirty laundry right here and right now. Everything that a man has ever left you for or everything that you feel like somebody could potentially leave you for. I need to know what it is right here right now. And I’m going to do the same for you. I didn’t expect her to be as comfortable with this as she was but she was. We had the conversation and by the end of it I had like a laundry list of do’s and don’ts in regards to things that were absolutely deal breakers in regards to being in a relationship with her and things that were going to work. And I pretty much just took that list and turned it into a song, so to speak.
So yeah. Good Man was born.