Ne-Yo Soul

By Gritz  |  03/26/2007

For a 24-year-old singer with Hollywood film appearances and a Grammy nomination already under his belt, it's amazing to think that Ne-Yo does most of his work behind the scenes.

After growing up in Las Vegas and writing songs for fun in his bedroom, Shaffer Chamere Smith (better known as Ne-Yo) moved out to L.A. and found his big break in 2005 when he penned Mario's "Let Me Love You," a major hit that held the top spot in the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 charts for nine weeks. Since then, he has written songs for the likes of Mary J. Blige, Rhianna, and Christina Milian, all while building his own career as an artist and developing his acting skills on the sets of "Save The Last Dance 2" and "Stomp The Yard."

Matter of fact, Ne-Yo may be the dark horse favorite for hardest working man in R&B. In terms of influence on the pop charts, he's got his fingerprints on enough hits to be mentioned in the same breath as superproducers like Timbaland and Pharell. In terms of artistry, he's following the same path blazed by John Legend, Alicia Keys, and other singer/songwriters who still believe that writing and storytelling means something in an age of manufactured pop acts.

As he prepares for the release of his eagerly awaited sophomore album, the modern-day Renaissance man took a break from his two-pronged assault on the charts to holler at Ballerstatus about his love for country music, writing for Britney and Beyonce, and hitting the lab with Young Hova. Time to download Ne-Yo into the Matrix... First off, I have my hunches, but where did you get the name from?

Ne-Yo: Well, your hunch was probably correct. It's a reference from the movie "The Matrix." A producer and homeboy of mine gave it to me, Big D. He did a bunch of stuff for 'Pac back in the day -- "Brenda's Got a Baby" and all that type of stuff. He said to me one day, "You see music the way Neo sees the Matrix," and from that he just started calling me Ne-Yo and it just stuck. Is that a favorite movie of yours?

Ne-Yo: For sure, definitely top ten. The first one that is. I loved the first one, I dug the second one, and I hated the last one. So what do you think Juelz meant when he said he's a "preview of the Matrix 12" on "S.A.N.T.A.N.A?"

Ne-Yo: Umm, wow, I have no idea. Juelz is one of those cats who from time to time says things that make sense to him and only him. And that's what art is, it ain't gotta make sense to nobody but you. But that's a conversation piece right there. Next time you see him you can ask him, "What did you mean when you said you were a preview of the Matrix 12?" Believe me, I hope to have that opportunity. Though I suspect that it would be something like asking Ghostface what he means when he says, "People be talkin' / I feed dolphins."

Ne-Yo: Yeah, he's another one that be in his own place. But like I said, that's what art is. You be in your own place and you let people ask you about it, so that you let it be known. Well, let's talk about where you've been at. I heard you grew up in Vegas. What was it like coming up in a city that's so entertainment-obsessesed?

Ne-Yo: Let's see, growing up in Vegas... Growing up in Vegas was weird. I always tell people Vegas is one of the only places on earth where you can find a slot machine in a bathroom, so that's gotta build character, right? But honestly, other than all the crap that was going on with the casinos and the Strip, it was pretty common. People don't understand that it's neighborhoods and other streets other than the Strip in Las Vegas. On TV, all you see is the Strip, but the Strip is just one long street in Vegas. Vegas is a lot bigger than just the Strip, you know? People are always like, "Did you grow up in a casino?" No, it's a regular place. The only difference is that it's a tourist town, so people come in, do what they gotta do, then get out. So you'll have a clique of friends, and then the next year you gotta make a whole new clique of friends because everyone's gone. So that was kind of hard. I'm sure you've got homeboys you've been cool with for years and years and years, but I can't really say that too tough. But did it prepare you for the music game at all?

Ne-Yo: Nah, not at all. When I was in Las Vegas I was not focused on music. I didn't start paying attention to music as a profession until the 11th grade of high school. Before that, music was something I did for me, by myself in my room, writing songs and singing. I wasn't doing it trying to get recognition or accolades, you know what I'm saying? I did it because I enjoyed it. When did you start to feel like your songs were something you could make a career out of?

Ne-Yo: I started writing songs professionally when I was about 16. After I graduated high school, I moved out to California with a group of friends. We were a singing group, but that didn't really pan out the way it was supposed to, so the songwriting thing was the next option. Did you at least go back to Vegas for All-Star Weekend?

Ne-Yo: Yeah I was there. Vegas was not prepared for that, man. They were not prepared. There were more people there for that weekend than any New Years, any fight... that was the most people in Las Vegas at one time ever. But I did a couple shows here and there, a couple appearances, and went and hung out with my family. Do you hope to ever return to Vegas and have a permanent casino show like Toni Braxton at Flamingo?

Ne-Yo: [Laughs]. I don't know... I mean, that ain't nothing to scoff at though, there's money doing that. There's people living in Vegas like kings and queens that don't do nothing but Vegas shows. Two shows a day, one during the day, one at night, and they get papered up like that. So, it's not out of the question, but I don't think I need to do that sh-- right now. I think I'm good where I'm at. Let's talk about your songwriting for a second, because there aren't many people who are so heavy on the charts as both songwriters and performers. What is the process you go through when you write a song? Do you pitch it specifically to an artist or do people seek you out themselves?

Ne-Yo: In the beginning it was writing songs to pitch to certain artists, because nobody knew who I was. Starting out that's kind of how you gotta do it in order to get any attention from these people. But after I got a little bit of success, that's when people started knowing my name a little bit. Then and now is when people started seeking me out for songs instead of me going to them and being like, "Hey, I wrote you this song, I think you should check it out." Now either the artist or someone who represents them will say, "We're doing this project, we want you to be a part of it," so it makes the process a lot easier. So how did does something like Beyonce's "Irreplaceable" happen, for example?

Ne-Yo: Well, I was working with B on the album anyways. We had actually cut a few songs, but then right in the middle of it, she decided she wanted to change the direction she was going, and the only song that really made sense with that direction was "Irreplaceable." I think I read somewhere that you had initially written it as a country song and hoped that maybe Shania Twain or Faith Hill might pick it up?

Ne-Yo: Yeah, the inspiration for the song came from country music. Because when I first heard the track, there was no drums on it, just the guitar, so I was like, "This sounds like country." When they put the drums on it that brought it back to R&B, but I was like, "Hold on a second, let me try something." I like country music because it's one of the few musical genres where the art of storytelling is very, very prominent. And it's always a story, a beginning middle and ending, and that's what I wanted to do with this song -- tell the story of a dude who had done something wrong to a female, and the female being empowered on some, "Oh, you really think I'ma just let that slide? Nah, you must not know 'bout me! I could have another you in a minute..." "To the left, to the left!" Who else have you written for?

Ne-Yo: Wow, ok, let's run it down: My first major placement was with Marques Houston. I wrote a song called "Bad Girl" with my man JQ. After that it was Nivea, Christina Milian, then B2K... I did a song for them for that movie they had out, a song called "Take It to the Floor" for the soundtrack. Then it was Heather Headley. Then it was the Mario song "Let Me Love You," and that was the one that sort of opened the floodgates. Then Mary J Blige, Faith Evans, Musiq Soulchild, Ruben Studdard, Paula DeAnda, some more stuff for Christina Milian, Beyonce, Rhianna, Mario Vazquez, Megan Rochelle...I know I'm forgetting people. I'm currently doing stuff for Britney Spears, Whitney Houston, Jennifer Hudson, Celine Deon, Usher, Chris Brown... So you're kind of busy?

Ne-Yo: Yes. Very, very, very busy. How do you decide if you want to keep a song for yourself? Do you ever write something and think, "Wow, this might be too good to give away?"

Ne-Yo: I have. I mean, people usually ask me why I didn't keep "Let Me Love You" for myself, but the situation was that I wasn't an artist when I wrote that song, I was just a songwriter. I wasn't even thinking about being an artist when that came out, so I wasn't thinking, "Wow, this is hot, I should keep it for myself." There was no "myself," you know what I mean? Every now and then I write one and think, "Damn, I should really keep this for myself," but the way it works is that if an artists comes to me for a song and then their representation sets up studio time for me to put songs together for them, whatever comes out of that session is theirs regardless of how good I feel it is or how much I would want to keep it for myself. If they set up the studio time, that's their session, their song. Is it as satisfying to see a Mario or Beyonce song that you wrote go to the top of the charts as it might be for something you performed yourself?

Ne-Yo: Absolutely. The way I look at it, if my song falls at number three, and a song I wrote for Beyonce falls at number two, and a song I wrote for Mary J. Blige falls at number one, I'm still the first three, so it's all good to me. One, two, and three is still me, even if it ain't me as an artist, it's still me. My name is still on the first three slots in the Billboard charts, so I'm good. Have you seen the movie, "Music And Lyrics?"

Ne-Yo: I haven't. Somebody told me that it was actually pretty good for a chick flick. Actually, it's horrible. I saw it with two dudes, terrible decision... But the point I want to get at it is the status of songwriters in the industry these days. I mean, in hip-hop, a ghostwriter gets no credit unless he writes for Diddy and it is painfully obvious, and that leads to a lot of controversy and ambiguity about who wrote what and who should get credit. At least in R&B, you get song credit and if people care about the music, they will check the liner notes. But is the artistry still respected in the business?

Ne-Yo: I feel that it is now more so than in the past. In the past, it didn't matter who wrote the songs, it was all about the people performing the songs. People used to assume that the person singing the song wrote the song. Now, with people like Sean Garrett and people like me and Shante Austin who are actually speaking out and saying, "Hey, I wrote this," and letting it be known that there's another person behind this artist that you're looking up to so tough. There are more people who went into making this person who they are, you know? So I think that now it's more of a respect thing than it ever was before. Speaking of hip-hop, you've worked with some of the best: Ghostface on "Back Like That" and Jay-Z on "Minority Report." What was it like to collaborate with those dudes?

Ne-Yo: Man, it was a dream come true. [They are] two artists that I've especially looked up to. Ghost has his own thing, his own swag, his own language almost, and I've always respected his art because he's the epitome of a true artist. A lot of stuff that he might say might not make sense to you, but it makes perfect sense to him, and if you ask him, he'll make it make perfect sense to you. I love that about him, so getting the opportunity to do something with him was beyond a dream come true. And then what can even be said about working with Jay? He's the best to do it, you know? That was an honor. It was one of the scariest sessions I've ever done, but it was an honor. Real talk. I've seen "Fade To Black" and how Jay puts it down in the studio. What was it like to witness that process?

Ne-Yo: He'll literally sit at the console and bob his head for about 15 minutes and then get in the booth and just put it down. No pen, no pad. Just straight off the top. Now let's talk about "Stomp The Yard," which you appeared in recently. How did you get involved with that project?

Ne-Yo: My involvement with that actually came through Columbus Short, who played DJ, the main character. I met him on the set of "Save The Last Dance 2," which is another movie he co-starred in, and I had a very, very, very small part in. So we met on the set of that movie and became real close. He's my homeboy, so when they hit him about the movie, he said my name to them like, "Yo, there's this cat, he's an R&B singer, but he's pretty decent on the acting side of things." They called me, I went down and auditioned, and I got the part. Are you anything like the character Rich Brown, who was something of a clown, but a pretty good-hearted dude?

Ne-Yo: Yeah, a little bit. I think there's a little Rich Brown in everyone. Rich Brown is a dude who's clowning around and being silly all the time, but I can't be that. I'm a businessman too, so it can't be fun and games all the time. But there's definitely a bit of Chris Brown... I mean, Rich my personality. But you are boys with Chris Brown, right?

Ne-Yo: Yeah, we met when I was putting my first album together. We were actually working on albums at the same time. I met him through Tina Davis, who was my A&R at the beginning of my whole Def Jam career, but she left Def Jam to start managing Chris full-time. We met through her and it was another one of those instant clicks. We became cool real quick and, you know, that's my homeboy. Was stepping something you had ever done before?

Ne-Yo: Nah [laughs]. I have family in college, so I've been to one or two step shows, but I had never done it. Looking at it, you would think, "All they're doing is stomping their feet and clapping their hands. Ok, I could do this no problem." But then you start to do it and realize what lack of rhythm you really have. It's not as easy as it looks. Real talk. I don't think it would be a pretty sight if I tried...

Ne-Yo: [Laughs]. But you know, those dudes that are in the fraternity, all of those cats are professional dancers. I can hold my own, but I'm not Chris Brown out this mug. I don't just dance like that, so I'm hiding in the corner seeing if I can learn these steps without looking a fool, but then I'm looking at them and they're having just as much trouble with it as I am. So I didn't feel that bad. [Spoiler Alert!] I wondered why they killed Chris Brown off so early since he's the one who can really dance.

Ne-Yo: Yeah! That was a shock. But I think he dug doing a death scene. His first time doing a movie and he got to do something as crazy as a death scene! Any more movies on the horizon?

Ne-Yo: There's been a few scripts thrown my way. Some really good ones as a matter of fact. There's nothing set in stone yet though because it's gotta make sense with this music thing. Music is always gonna be number one for me. The second album is coming, the whole whirlwind surrounding that is about to start, so I gotta pick something that makes sense with that. What can people expect different from your sophomore effort?

Ne-Yo: I definitely took a few risks here and there. I did not do In My Own Words all over again. But due to the fact that In My Own Words did so well, I have a sound now, which is something I didn't worry about at the beginning. Nobody knew who I was, but now they expect "So Sick," they expect "Sexy Love." So there are definitely some things on the album that are in that vein, but as far as the rest of the album, I definitely took some chances. I've grown as an artist, as a songwriter, as a person, period. I've had so many experiences over the past year and I wanted the music to magnify that. When the album comes out and you put it in your CD deck or load it on your iPod or whatever the case may be, just listen with an open mind. Listen knowing that I'm not the same dude that I was when I did In My Own Words. I've grown a little bit. What was the Scream Tour like?

Ne-Yo: The Scream Tour was cool. It was loud, I'll definitely say that [laughs]. I think people were a little surprised to see me there because it was a little younger than what my audience is, but my whole thing is that I don't do music for a specific age range. I do music for people. So if you're 14, 40, or 400, I don't care. As long as you dig what I do it's all good. Did it make you feel like a sex symbol though?

Ne-Yo: [Laughs]. Nah. I left that to everyone else. Y'all go take your shirt off and do what you do. That ain't really my thing. Not knocking anyone that does it, it's just not my thing. But be honest, are you still so sick of love songs?

Ne-Yo: Not at all! Love songs is paying the bills so, nah, I'm loving them now.