Ne-Yo is one of the most influential R&B talents of our time. From Rihanna, Beyoncé, and Ciara to Céline Dion, Whitney Houston and many more, he has written so many classics for some of the most successful people in entertainment. Ne-Yo’s vocal capabilities, along with his songwriting skills, are what make him untouchable within the music industry.
The 42-year-old hitmaker is gearing up to release his eighth studio album, Self Explanatory. Due July 15, the highly anticipated project has already spawned singles like “You Got The Body,” “Don’t Love Me,” “Stay Down” featuring Yung Bleu, and the quarantine hit record “U 2 Luv” featuring Jeremih.
In this in-depth interview, we unpack Ne-Yo’s illustrious career and discuss what he considers to be his signature album. He also shares who he would have perform his tribute celebration when the honors for his contributions to music start rolling in. Read up!
We’re here at Essence Fest celebrating Black excellence. How do you celebrate yourself Ne-Yo?
I celebrate myself with my quiet time. I don’t get a lot of it because I’m always surrounded by people like my children and my wife so even at the house, I’m not alone. When I get by myself, I meditate or get on my video game. I can’t punch people in real life, so I do it on my game.
What games are you playing to that magnitude? Some Grand Theft Auto?
I play a little GTA, Street Fighter — any game I can kick you in the head, I’ll probably play it just so I don’t do it in real life. People should thank Street Fighter for the ass whooping I give there that they should get (laughs).
After four years, you’re returning to the spotlight with a new album. What self-reflection did you do during your time away?
So, I started this album process back in 2018 and then COVID happened, throwing a monkey wrench in everything and everyone’s situation — including mine. During the course of that time, there was a moment where I did get a little lost and I had to figure out where I fit in this new sound, look, and industry. I’m 42 years old, almost 43 years fresh over here. I have two whole generations coming up behind me, so it was a moment where I was wondering if Ne-Yo even still fits in the industry. I had to realize that I am not in the business of selling records as that is a record label’s job. My job as a performer and a singer is to sing my heart out, make sure my art is genuine and real and deliver it to the world — let the world figure out what they want to do with it. I didn’t get into this business to be famous, sell a million records or make money. I do this because I love music and I would do it for free. I’m in a great place and this album is amazing. I don’t want people to take my word for it — they can judge for themselves on July 15th when it comes out.
Talk about the album title for a second. What inspired you to call it Self Explanatory?
I call the album Self Explanatory because at this point, the music should speak for itself. I hate to listen to a song that has a storyline to it and once it’s over, I’m asking questions. I’m supposed to be able to know what’s going on the second it plays. My body is supposed to know what it’s supposed to do and that’s what my music is doing on this album. If it’s a sexy song, heartbreak song or whatever the case is, your body knows what to do. It’s self-explanatory. Secondly, I’ve been in this game for almost 20 years, so I really don’t think a Ne-Yo album requires explanation at this point. You know what you’re going to get from a Ne-Yo album — at least to a degree, at this point, it explains itself.
The first single “Don’t Love Me” addresses your marriage. What other stories are you sharing with fans as we anticipate the album drop?
Well, the first single started as an open letter to my wife as we were talking about divorce for a minute. I’ve always been better at writing it down opposed to speaking it. I started this album in 2018, and a lot has happened from then to now — you’ll get snapshots of my life up to now through the album, whether it’s good times with the wife, bad times, different stories and situations from people close to me. It’s not always about me. Not everyone is married, so every song can’t be about marriage. I’m writing for the world as well.
Your legacy in music has been so impactful — you’ve contributed so much. As you reflect on your career, is there a moment you feel really impacted you in a positive way?
I love to learn … I love a great learning experience. I love to approach something one way and then be shown another way to view it or shown another avenue that I wasn’t paying attention to. I always go back to Beyoncé’s ‘Irreplaceable’ — when I wrote the song, I had written it for myself, and what I learned through the writing of this song is there’s some lyrics that work better depending on who is singing it. For a man to sing ‘I can have another you in a minute, matter fact, she’ll be here in a minute’ — that can come across a little mean and misogynistic. For a woman to say it, all of a sudden, it’s empowering with women agreeing and not taking no more mess from the man. ‘Irreplaceable’ taught me the power of a lyric — and mind you, it can be the same lyrics, scenario, and story but from a women’s perspective to a man’s, you’ll always get something different on what’s being talked about. It may need a man on the record or it may need to have a woman — and in this particular case, it needed to be a woman. Beyoncé got a hold of it and the rest is history.
Is there a record you’ve written that made you think, “Maybe I should’ve given this song to a woman instead of keeping it for myself”?
Well, the interesting thing about my career is I haven’t written for a lot of men. I tend to write for women primarily because I tend to write from a vulnerable place, and women are more susceptible to vulnerability than men. Men want to be real strong and tough right now and what they don’t realize is that true love — whether it’s love of self or another person — you can’t get to that without vulnerability. You have to drop your guard and let go in order to get to that place. Women seem to know that a little bit more than men so because of this, the majority of my hits have been written for women.
You’ve crafted some amazing albums. Is there one in particular that you feel is your signature?
Probably Year of the Gentleman. I have a team that I work with — some are A&Rs and some of them are management. These are people whose opinions I respect so in the process of putting an album together, it’s never me going ‘I like this song or that song.’ It’s a group effort. When it came to Year of the Gentleman, I kind of picked every record. I knew exactly what I wanted it to look like and what I wanted it to feel like — the flow of it — and nobody fought me on it. It’s one of those albums that came together perfectly. Every element of the album came together exactly the way I envisioned it and it worked beautifully. That’s the one time that’s ever happened to me in my career.
You recently left ICM for APA. How is the move going and what are you hoping to accomplish with the new team?
I’ll say so far, things are going well. We already have a few television and film things in the works. I told them how I wanted to touch that lane a little bit more. I want to act for real though — anything that isn’t Ne-Yo. I’m typecast to a degree, as I’m cast to play a certain type of role everytime. I’m cast as a struggling writer or a writer washed up on his luck — it’s always something music-based. I appreciate everything and I’m grateful, however, I want to see what I can do as an actor. I would like to get a role like a paraplegic crackhead that just found his father — I don’t know, something other than Ne-Yo.
What was it like to see Diddy honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2022 BET Awards?
Before Diddy, there was a certain kind of cool and then after Diddy, he changed the cool. He changed dance, fashion, and flipped the whole industry on its head — you can’t deny it. For me, it was the ‘All About the Benjamins’ video. It felt like such a rock video — people were moving around, prancing, and it was such a vibe. He found a way to take all of that and combine it into one masterful piece of music. I feel nobody can do that like Diddy — that’s a Diddy thing. With his new record he has out now called ‘Gotta Move On’ with Bryson Tiller — to put the record out and then the visual out, he showed fans not only will he give them this record, he’s gonna show you how you should bop to it. He’s a genius and I feel like he deserved the award. It was dope to see Jodeci, Busta Rhymes, Mary J. Blige — all this nostalgia coming back — and he’s absolutely deserving.
When you’re honored in the same way, who would you like to have in your tribute?
Beyoncé definitely has to come out and perform ‘Irreplaceable,’ Rihanna has to come out and perform ‘Take A Bow,’ Jennifer Hudson has to come out and perform ‘Spotlight,’ Céline Dion has to come out and do ‘Incredible’ with me. Mario would need to come out and perform ‘Let Me Love You’ — we can keep going (laughs). I need everyone to pull up — if I’ve ever written a song for you or impacted your career at all, I need you to pull up for my moment, should I get a Lifetime Achievement Award.
When you get one!
When I get it — there you go. Speak it into existence.
I’m sure you saw Verzuz. How was it to see all of those R&B artists who contributed so much to music all on one stage?
Yes, I was in the building for that — it was amazing. Real singers know you have good days and you have bad days — it was a few bad days in there (laughs). It’s all good as I had one recently myself. I was at ‘The View’ and I had a sore throat. It was a live show, so what are we going to do?
Any advice for artists who have had those bad days on stage?
Some of the greatest to ever do it have made mistakes. Michael Jordan missed shots all the time. It’s not about the shots you missed or the fall, it’s about what happens next. Don’t let it be the last memory people have of you. Keep moving. It’s like boxing, you’re going to get hit and you may fall down, but get up and keep going. Don’t stop and think because you had one bad day, your career is over — it’s not.
Now, were you Team Omarion or Team Mario?
I have love for both, but I have to say I was Team Mario. I got love for Omarion — he’s a performer and dude is somewhat untouchable in his element. However, a performer against a singer — the performer is always going to struggle a little bit because the performer has to use their whole body to get the same response that the singer can get with just his voice. He can stand at one point on stage and sing and get everyone in the room glued. As a performer, I got to land on the speaker, jump, and do a split — I got to perform. A singer just has to sing.
Would you consider yourself a singer or a performer?
I am a little bit of both but if I had to choose one, I am a songwriter that can sing a little bit. I am not Usher or Mario when it comes to the vocals — these are saaangers. I sing with my strong points being that I can peform and write and I sing a little bit — these cats can sing! I know you caught Usher’s ‘Tiny Desk’ segment.
How did you feel watching that?
I felt like I needed to start doing vocal exercises right away (laughs). It was a rough week for R&B with Givēon and what happened at the BET Awards to the Verzuz — much love to all of them.
Would you ever do a “Tiny Desk” concert? Who would you bring?
I would happily do a ‘Tiny Desk’ and I have no idea who I would bring (laughs). I really don’t know, but it’s something to think about because I really want to do it. We’re going to make it happen.
You’re also known for your fire collabs. Are there any collaborations you’ve been hoping to snag and what would those records sound like?
Speaking of Usher, we’ve never done anything together — I’ve written a song for Usher before, but we never did anything together. I would love to do something with him. I would love to do something with Beyoncé — I’ve written for her, but nothing with her. I’m a huge fan of Drake — I love Drake as a songwriter. I’m interested to know what a Drake and Ne-Yo record would sound like.
You’ve done everything under the sun from pop to R&B, and Drake did just drop his new album, which has a great house vibe. Maybe a Drake and Ne-Yo house record?
That would be dope — a house record or maybe a real live R&B record between us both. I know some people don’t, but I like when Drake sings. I ain’t mad at the man’s voice. I think that would be a dope collaboration.