Since his 2006 debut, Ne-Yo’s proven to be more Gene Kelly than R. Kelly—someone less concerned with sexed-up swagger than polished showmanship and substance. Much like John Legend (who is pegged as soft for some of the same reasons), his strength is a willingness to be weak: a case made with elegant, decisively crafted songs (among them Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable”) that let you know that he knows r&b should be about more than getting your dick sucked in the club. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but, I mean, really.
With an open, pleading tone that belies a Michael Jackson jones, Ne-Yo’s fantastic third CD, The Year of the Gentleman, reconfigures “grown and sexy” by detailing relationships with an often uneasy mix of heartache, reflection, wit, lust, and resignation. For each time he wants it that way (as on the sly Palow da Don–helmed “Single,” which measures commitment by the running time of a song), there’s another moment when he’s watching her walk away. Witness “Fade Into the Background”: One of four songs produced by longtime partners StarGate, the quietly sorrowful highlight finds Ne-Yo forced against his will to come to grips with loss; “Why Does She Stay” goes in for even more self-abuse (“She’s so much better than me/I’m so unworthy of her”). Clearly, it’s not just thugs who need hugs.
Don’t cue the violins just yet. “Closer,” the single, is an adrenaline rush of Chicago house, while “Miss Independent” is chock-full of thick roller-rink organs celebrating the ultimate turn-on: a feisty chick who can pick up the check. Yet even when the beats are bumping, Ne-Yo and his production crew of vets and newbies make sure the emphasis is on vocals, lyrics, and intention. “Lie to Me” is all that, a make-the-pain-stop power ballad masterfully produced by Shea Taylor: As the music begins its gradual rise to crescendo, Ne-Yo’s vocal intensity keeps pace, until by the time he pleads, “I need desperately to believe you/I won’t be responsible for what I might do,” he’s on the verge of rage, as if the only way to protect himself is to shut the truth out. It’s raw stuff, but right now? If this is what r&b needs to be, then play on, playa.