Before Michael Jackson passed away, it was rumored that he was working with Ne-Yo on new music, a rumor that filled my heart with glee. Because if there is any “new” artist who gets the mixture of pop savvy and classic melody that Michael brought to the table with Off the Wall and Thriller, it’s Ne-Yo (and now we can probably add Bruno Mars to that list.)
With much of the songwriting in the Top 40 farmed out to the likes of Dr. Luke and Max Martin these days, not as much attention is paid to folks who perform pop music but still write/produce/perform their own songs. The modern-day Smokey Robinsons of the world. Ne-Yo’s got a way with the pen and an appealing voice, and each of his albums thus far has been at the very least, enjoyable. With his third album, Year of the Gentleman, he proved that he was capable of a classic album.
Its follow up, Libra Scale, was an album whose convoluted concept is typical of artistic types who are given just a little too much leeway. The comic-based concept took away from the actual music, which was as good as anything Ne-Yo’s put out over the course of his career. The album didn’t fly commercially, but Ne-Yo’s stayed on the pop radar over the last couple of years by appearing on dance hits by the likes of Pitbull, David Guetta and Calvin Harris. You could say that’s a little bit of bandwagon jumping, but it’s worth noting that Ne-Yo probably kicked off this R&B-artists-doing-Eurodance trend with tracks like “Closer.”
Ne-Yo’s fifth album, R.E.D., continues that stylistic diversification. There are dance tracks. There are also R&B tracks, including a hip-hop leaning one featuring Wiz Khalifa. There are tracks that have an indie rock vibe to them (although the guitars are turned down enough to not scare away the R&B fans.) There’s even a track featuring Tim McGraw, and even though that all probably translates into too many damn tracks, R.E.D. is a largely enjoyable listening experience.
I’ve said it before, I am not down with EDM. I like songs with melodies, and most modern dance music is melody-deficient. Ne-Yo solves that problem on some of the uptempo joints on R.E.D. “Let Me Love You (Until You Learn To Love Yourself)” is a dance hit with a piano-based melody that could easily have been rendered into a pop ballad, or a hip-hop banger. “Unconditional” is a song in a similar vein. It’s not just danceable, but singable as well. I can’t say the same for the other handful of dance tracks on the album, and R.E.D. would probably move up a grade level if songs like “Shut Me Down” had just been left off the album. There’s even a mercifully short “wub wub” breakdown on the otherwise decent “Be The One.”
But if I have to suffer through those indignities to get to the good songs, I shall. “Miss Right” is one of those effortless, breezy R&B songs that Ne-Yo has become well-known for, while “Lazy Love” has a Sunday afternoon lovemakin’ meets TV On the Radio vibe. “Carry On (Her Letter To Him)” proves that when it comes to writing about relationships, Ne-Yo speaks as well as any modern-day songwriter. The song also creeps in on power-ballad territory, something that delights me to no end.
The deluxe version of R.E.D. has 17 tracks, which is overkill. I’d rather have a 12-song album with 12 good tracks than a 17 song album with 12 good tracks, you dig? “Should Be You” (which mitigates a worse-than-usual verse from Diddy with a better-than-usual verse from Fabolous) and the touching “Alone With You (Maddie’s Song)” should have probably been bumped up in the lineup to appear on the regular album. Plus, the packaging for the deluxe version is oblong and can’t fit on the shelf next to the rest of my CDs. I know-first world problems, right? But still…music reviewing is all about first world problems.
I can’t say whether R.E.D. will return Ne-Yo to his former commercial glory. Given the reception awarded similar (but lower quality) albums by Chris Brown and Usher, I doubt it. However, unlike the two previously mentioned artists, Ne-Yo’s forays into dance music seem reasonably natural and not like trend-chasing. Ne-Yo, of course, also has the gift of melody, which you can never discount. Even if he may never top Year of the Gentleman, Ne-Yo’s talented enough that everything he puts out warrants a listen, and R.E.D. contains more good moments than bad or even mediocre ones.