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.
That’s incredible. Have you ever considered being a relationship therapist?
Look to be honest with you, I wanted, like if I was going to tell somebody else how to do it I have to be doing it right my damn self. So I figured let me get my situation right. And then maybe I can help somebody else. I mean that’s the reason that the timing behind this Good Man record is perfect. Because I am in this place now, I am in this monogamous relationship, I have been in for four years. Married for two. I am at the place where I’m now realizing the importance of doing right by another person. And I feel like it’s a message that I can spread to the rest of the world, spread to my fellow men.
Since you’ve taken a step outside of your usual music box with “Push Back,” what other transitions or evolutions can we expect from Good Man as an album on the whole?
I love the fact that it feels like the pendulum has slowly but surely swinging back towards the music that felt like something other than just the lo-fi, heavy 808 thing we’ve been doing as of late with music. And when I say music I mean hip-hop and R&B mainly.
The sound of this album is primarily R&B but it leans slightly more traditional than what’s happening right now. I’ve never been a trend follower, you know what I mean? I’ve never been a cat who would be like ‘Alright, what’s happening in the world right now? Let’s follow that.’ I’m not that dude. I feel like you follow trends and then when the trend goes away you go away too. I’m trying to be here for at least another little minute. So with that being said, I am always trying to do something that’s going to outlive me. Something that has that timeless element to it.
I feel like that’s what I’ve done with this record. Not all of the songs are R&B but it is predominantly R&B. And it’s a more traditional feel of R&B than the more emo, trap pop, hip-hop kind of feel that R&B has taken on. Not to diss that feel at all because I feel like there is room for all of it and sounds are supposed to evolve, but I feel like, for what I am talking about and the message that I wanted to portray with this album, that’s the sound that was going to lend itself more to what it is I am trying to say here.
There’s a couple joints on there that lean outside R&B. There’s a joint called “Nights Like These” featuring Romeo Santos which I feel like the Spanish market is really going to get into as well as the English market. There are a couple different vibes on the album but overall the album is a vibe. It’s one of those things where there’s a lesson to be learned if you care to learn the lesson; it’s there for you. But if you don’t care to learn the lesson and you just want to get into the beats and the melodies, then we got that for you too. So you know it’s me again trying to please all of the people all of the time.
That really resonated with me, what you said about the trend coming back around because of we have all these new traditionalists like Daniel Caesar and Brent Faiyaz and Arin Ray. We’re starting to see it go back to that traditional sound that you really helped advance and bring into the 2000s. Are there any artists that are out right now that you are listening to?
There are definitely people I am listening to right now and happy that they are where they are. Because it just makes matters that much better for everybody doing R&B music.
I love Daniel Caesar. I love what he does. I love the tone of his voice. I love what he stands for musically. Huge fan of Sabrina Claudio. I know that she just put an album out that I’m enjoying right now that’s really, really dope. Alina Baraz, I’ve been a fan of hers for a little while. The kid Khalid, I’m liking what he’s doing. My boy Eric Bellinger just put an album out called Easy Call. What I love about Eric Bellinger is that he’s like a cool mixture of both. He can give you that millennial kind of hip-hop feel to the R&B and then he can turn around and sing his ass off and give you something traditional and good. So I feel like his album is going to be a collaboration of both of those. So make sure you check for that, Easy Call.
But yeah man there are a few people out there. I love H.E.R. and what she’s doing with the music, man. It’s some real good R&B out there right now. It’s not so much linked to mainstream to where you can turn on the radio and hear it just yet, but I like the time that we are living in right now. It’s like now it’s out there you just kind of got to go get it yourself. So, I ain’t mad.
You’ve kind of been around for a couple of evolutions. You were there for traditional, old school, major label promotion cycle style. You were there for the eventual breakdown of that when there was panicking and trying to get ring tones out. And now you’re seeing these kids are kind of being able to put their music out directly to Spotify and just skip the label process all together like Daniel Caesar has. How do you feel about how music distribution has changed?
I mean I feel like it’s a good time for artists. There are no more gatekeepers so to speak. At one point, if you couldn’t get a major deal, that was kind of what it is. Like everybody felt like you had to get one of these major labels behind you to put you in music. To get you to the full potential of what you wanted it to be. And that ain’t the case no more. Like now, as you just said, these cats are releasing it straight to Spotify. Getting their streams up and doing it themselves and I feel like that’s a great thing. I feel like now you can literally take your destiny into your own hands. I feel like that’s a great thing. For a long time that wasn’t the case. You really had to depend on other people to get it to go. Now if you’ve got the drive, get out there and do it yourself.
Understand that it’s not an overnight thing for anybody. I feel like that’s always going to be the truth no matter what the way that the music gets out there. It’s never going to happen overnight. That’s just not realistic. So if you are willing to put the time in, put the effort in you can get your music in, you can get your career to fly without the help of a major label. Without the help of anybody. You can literally do it yourself.
Now I will say that I am not totally happy with streaming and all of that stuff. It feels like we are consuming more music nowadays, but they way that it is being consumed and the way that the artist and the writers and the musicians are being compensated is not what it is supposed to be. Not at all. I don’t feel like we are getting the money we are supposed to get. But we’re making strides. They’ve fixed the streaming thing to where there’s definitely money to be made. It’s not the money that it should be yet. But there’s definitely money to be made. So I feel like in the years to come we will make more strides and eventually get to that place where everybody is being compensated the way that they should be.
How do you feel about the argument that it’s more about building the fan base and making their money on a lot of touring, or expanding your revenue stream by licensing the music and going into other areas like acting and business endorsements?
Oh no, I believe in all of that too. But at the same time, it’s not to say that it shouldn’t be possible for a person to make a living just doing their music. Like basically telling me that I am get in the studio and I’ma pour my soul out on this thing and the only way I am going to get paid is at the show? I’m not supposed to get paid for the actual recording? That’s not right. You can’t ask the workers at McDonald’s to do their job and not pay them. You can’t ask the workers anywhere to do they job and not pay them. Like, you get paid on the back end. No, that’s not how it works.
I don’t see why they feel like they can do that with music and artists like we’re the ones to just walk over. Walk over our backs like we don’t matter. I don’t get that.
So speaking of expanding your rings of talents and setting trends, you were in the televised version of The Wiz a couple years back and I know that you probably saw John Legend do Jesus Christ Superstar in a similar way. What were your feelings on that and do you feel like that is a new legitimate area for singers like yourself to sort of get into these live productions on television?
I feel like as an artist you should not back yourself into any corner or place yourself in any box. That is the reason I did The Wiz. That’s the reason I moved out and tried to do some TV and film stuff. If God gives you the opportunity and the talent to so do then you are supposed to use it. You are supposed to jump at that opportunity. Under the understanding that not everybody gets ’em. It’s not like these things are falling in your lap just because. No. Every opportunity that comes to you, comes to you for a reason. And if it’s come to you that means that God has some way, some how given you the means to do what you need to do to get that, to live up to the full potential of that opportunity.
So I applaud John Legend for doing Jesus Christ Superstar. I didn’t get a chance to see it but I heard good things. I heard that it went really well. I had a great time with The Wiz. Didn’t expect it to be as especially fulfilling as it was. I definitely feel like somewhere in the future I will do more stuff like that. But right now my focus is this new album which comes June 8th, by the way. And also World of Dance. We’ve just been shooting season two of that. So be looking for that May 29th.
But yeah man, I feel like as an artist you are supposed to move around and work in as many mediums as humanly possible. That’s the best way to really feed your artistic soul.
Good Man is out June 8 via Motown Records.