One for the Ladies
By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 16, 2008
The latest single from male R&B star Ne-Yo is "Miss Independent," which celebrates the sex appeal of a woman's autonomy.
That's right: a-u-t-o-n-o-m-y.
You'd be forgiven for reading it, on first pass, as anatomy, given the often crude state of urban pop music.
But Ne-Yo isn't like Akon, T-Pain, Lil Wayne and the rest of his chart-topping, "that"-smacking contemporaries -- and not only because he's become an expert at female-empowerment anthems. (His rÃ©sumÃ© includes Rihanna's "Take a Bow" and BeyoncÃ©'s "Irreplaceable," woman-done-wrong muscle-flexers that reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.)
Ne-Yo is also something of a throwback, which he makes clear with the title of his latest album, "Year of the Gentleman" -- a proclamation that simply doesn't square with the macho, discourteous tone that dominates modern R&B and hip-hop.
Though the album's contents are dressed up with modern flourishes (lightly auto-tuned vocals, stuttering synth stabs, electronic finger clicks, programmed drum patterns), Ne-Yo goes old school in proffering heartfelt, melody-rich and, yes, well-mannered music that harks back to a much earlier era. You remember it, when songs were more than mere ring tones, chivalry wasn't an anachronism, and men not only pulled up their wool slacks, they actually wore them and called them that.
As it turns out, then, Ne-Yo isn't very neo after all; it's almost as if he's 28 going on 88.
Not that there's anything wrong with that: "Year of the Gentleman" is a winning album, in large measure because Ne-Yo's atavism sounds so refreshing.
The silky-smooth singer-songwriter's knack for coming up with monster hooks doesn't hurt, either, as just about every song here sounds like a potential hit, including "Miss Independent," which is creeping up the charts -- and into the hearts and minds of women everywhere.
Over a lilting harpsichord line and syncopated drum pattern, Ne-Yo sings in that high, fluid, Michael Jacksonesque tenor of his of a self-sufficient woman who walks like a boss, talks like a boss and pays her bills on time . . . and is, therefore, drop-dead sexy. "She got her own thing / That's why I love her," he declares. (As with "Miss Independent" and Ne-Yo's first solo hit "So Sick," the songs were co-produced by Stargate, the nom-de-studio of Norwegian hitmakers Tor Erik Hermansen and Mikkel S. Eriksen.)
Ne-Yo celebrates female sexiness more traditionally with the album's first single, "Closer," a Top 10 hit in which he sings -- over a pulsating Stargate-produced disco beat -- of his attraction to a spellbinding woman who "wants to own me, to control me." It's an idea of which he's enamored.
"Year of the Gentleman," Ne-Yo's third album in as many years, is a concept album about women, with the artist born Shaffer Smith admiring them, courting them, loving them, praising them and then beating himself up over them when he becomes That Guy from the BeyoncÃ© and Rihanna singles. Indeed, while "Irreplaceable" and "Take a Bow" were both kiss-offs to no-good men, Ne-Yo more or less puts himself in that role on his own album, turning his pain and anger inward -- albeit in a sensitive, self-aware style.
He's mired in a state of self-loathing, just daring his woman to order him to the left, to the left on "Why Does She Stay," a standout in which he declares himself unworthy of her love. "She's so much better than me / I'm so unworthy of her," he sings in the gorgeously mopey song.
The chord progression of "Lie to Me" recalls Justin Timberlake's "Cry Me a River," but here it's Ne-Yo himself who's on the verge of tears as he pleads with his cheating woman to shield him from the truth. "Baby I need desperately, desperately to believe you," he sings. "Cause I won't be held responsible for what, what I might to do me."
There are songs that detail his romantic losses, too. "Fade Into the Background" is about an ex who has moved on to marriage with another man, while "Part of the List" catalogues everything Ne-Yo misses about her, from her hair, her eyes and her nose to "our quiet time, your beautiful mind." He sounds downright bereft singing over minor chords. He also sounds like he's done a musical time warp, as the complex, layered music and feathery harmonies hint at 1960s folk-pop.
"Year of the Gentleman" is more than songs sung blue, of course. And, in fact, it ends on an orgiastic if overwrought note as Ne-Yo sings the praises of his partner on the closing ballad "Stop This World." His voice isn't quite muscular enough to carry the song, which is weighted down by all that schmaltz. But that likely won't stop it from becoming a first-dance staple at weddings, even if it does contain a few anatomical references. Then again, they're to a woman's face, as Ne-Yo sings: "In her smile is the most amazing dream / And in her eyes I fall asleep."