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Crossing Over: Michael Jackson, Ne-Yo, and the Sound of Pop in 2012

Michael Jackson would have turned 54 last week, and to celebrate that fact—as well as the imminent release of Bad 25 (Epic), a reissue of Jackson's 1987 album—Pepsi, the soda brand so associated with the singer during his late-20th-century world-domination period, threw a party. The bar was stocked with tallboys of the soft drink emblazoned with Jackson in his "Smooth Criminal" getup and the title "King of Pop," an honor that he'd allegedly bestowed on himself; ads featuring Jackson played on the screens in between sets; the DJ spun his biggest hits in between other radio staples from the '80s and '90s.

Even relatively obscure Jackson cuts like "This Place Hotel" received pops from the crowd, thanks to their being instantly recognizable. And so many of the other chestnuts owed debts to Jackson's worth—if not directly (à la Jackson's insistent backing vocals on Rockwell's ode to paranoia "Somebody's Watching Me"), then at least in spirit.

Jackson passed away three years ago this summer, and though his legacy continues to be given lip service by those pop stars who dream of matching his profile, the influence of his sound—which fused rock and r&b and funk with more far-flung genres—has waned on pop radio. (The defensiveness against "haters" that Jackson grew increasingly, and justifiably, famous for, remains. But at least Jackson had the sense—or the pre-Twitter-era timing—to package his messages to his detractors in songs like the storming "Leave Me Alone" and the jagged "Why You Wanna Trip on Me?")

Voice writer Chris Molanphy has discussed the slowing of crossover hits from the r&b charts to the Hot 100 (which calculates the popularity of songs across radio formats, as well as at digital music stores and on streaming sites like Spotify), and how that trend has affected album sales overall. When he wrote a Sound of the City column on the topic in July, no song that topped Billboard's Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart had reached the Hot 100's top five; that is still the case. (The chart's current No. 1 song, the 2 Chainz/Drake collaboration "No Lie," has so far peaked at No. 24 on the Hot 100.) In order to reach pop peaks, increasingly, singers have to cross over in a way that streamlines their r&b influences. (Think of Nicki Minaj and her stomping, dancefloor-ready "Starships"; it peaked at No. 5 on the Hot 100 but only at No. 85 on R&B/Hip-Hop Songs, and in June, its "authenticity" caused a row between the Technicolor-tressed singer/rapper's crew, the Lil Wayne–led Young Money, and New York's hip-hop radio powerhouse Hot 97.)

The prodigiously talented r&b singer Ne-Yo headlined last week's party, playing a set heavy on his hits, with a couple of Bad chestnuts sprinkled in; he donned a white suit, Jackson-style, for a speedy rendition of "Smooth Criminal," and his torchy take on the Bad ballad "I Just Can't Stop Lovin' You" brought down the house. It was great. His career could be seen as a bit of a case study in how the charts have changed since the era of Jackson's dominance: His heartfelt (and extremely Jackson-indebted) "So Sick," off his first album, topped the Hot 100. Because of You, the follow-up, also had pop success (the sugary title track peaked at No. 2 on the big board), and in 2008, he released the sumptuous Year of the Gentleman, a grown-up, confessional masterwork that had two major crossover hits, the tensely longing four-on-the-floor track "Closer" (No. 7 on the Hot 100) and the glorious ode to women doing it for themselves "Miss Independent" (No. 7). Libra Scale, from 2010, was a solid album, with tracks like the expansive love song "One in a Million" and the "Closer"-recalling "Beautiful Monster," but it didn't quite cross over.

Despite Libra Scale's unfairly soft landing, Ne-Yo remained in the Hot 100 thanks to him providing the hook for "Give Me Everything," a 2011 single by the impossibly suave rapper Pitbull that became absolutely ubiquitous almost immediately after its release and eventually topped the chart. Ne-Yo's contribution to the track largely consists of his buttery-smooth voice singing "Give me everything tonight" over and over again; there's also a slightly apocalyptic tinge when he augments his come-on with the warning that "we might not get tomorrow." (So why not party on, then?) His voice had provided the fulcrum for hip-hop songs in the past, but his entrée into pop's take on the rapidly cresting, hedonism-happy world of EDM has kept his profile as high as it was during the "Closer" years.

In July, I heard a bit of Ne-Yo's fifth full-length The R.E.D. Album (Universal Motown/Compound), now slated to come out in October. The singer was present, and before those tracks that reached across the aisle to his pop base, he discussed his desire to put EDM-inspired songs on the record, but to give them more lyrical depth. "Let Me Love You" is one of those songs, and it's full of the flashy, almost stage-direction-like musical signifiers that tell assembled listeners when they can lose their minds; but despite the title making the song sound like a simple come-on, its words burrow a bit deeper, offering a woman with low self-worth a chance to find love. (I still liked the r&b-leaning songs—as well as the acoustic-tinged "She Is," which the singer mused about possibly playing at the Country Music Association Awards—the best, though.) Whether this attempt to infuse a neon-spangled, puffery-happy genre with emotions that plumb a party photograph's surface will hit with listeners remains to be seen, though knowing the artistic intentions behind the track makes it sound even sweeter.

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