Ne-Yo - Non-Fiction (Deluxe Edition) (2015)

Ne-Yo
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When Ne-Yo debuted in 2005 with In My Own Words, he filled a sharp void in an urban landscape increasingly permeated by hard-edged, hip-hop-driven R&B in which vocals and melody took a backseat to beats and guest rappers. A twenty-something crooner capable of penning thoughtful lyrics and classic melodies was a breath of fresh air at a time when equally talented peers seemed to be commercializing their styles to sustain high chart positions. Over the next few years, timeless tunes such as “Because of You,” “Do You,” and “Mad” continued his hold on a mature niche in a cluttered marketplace; but following the global success of the markedly dancier “Closer” in 2008, he seemed to get caught up in a balancing act of maintaining a certain pop crossover status while also feeling the need to show more street credibility. As a result, 2010’s Libra Scale and 2012’s R.E.D. felt somewhat uneven, despite each set boasting memorable selections.

When Ne-Yo debuted in 2005 with In My Own Words, he filled a sharp void in an urban landscape increasingly permeated by hard-edged, hip-hop-driven R&B in which vocals and melody took a backseat to beats and guest rappers. A twenty-something crooner capable of penning thoughtful lyrics and classic melodies was a breath of fresh air at a time when equally talented peers seemed to be commercializing their styles to sustain high chart positions. Over the next few years, timeless tunes such as “Because of You,” “Do You,” and “Mad” continued his hold on a mature niche in a cluttered marketplace; but following the global success of the markedly dancier “Closer” in 2008, he seemed to get caught up in a balancing act of maintaining a certain pop crossover status while also feeling the need to show more street credibility. As a result, 2010’s Libra Scale and 2012’s R.E.D. felt somewhat uneven, despite each set boasting memorable selections.

Unfortunately, Non-Fiction, Ne-Yo’s sixth album to date, has an even harder time breaking free of that stylistic struggle. On one hand, the mixture of street-conscious slow-jams and soulfully spiced pop-dance entries shows his adeptness at crafting repertoire appealing to listeners across the board. On the other, the infiltration of self-indulgent spoken narratives and crude rap cameos by less-than-stellar artists takes away from Ne-Yo’s own vocal prowess and works against the natural grace that his core fan base appreciates most. One won’t find much evidence here of the charm and candor of “When You’re Mad” or “Sexy Love”; instead, most hints of romanticism are washed away by trashy rhymes that seek to exploit women and the sanctity of relationships. It seems as though he’s become a product of the formula that he rose above in the beginning of his career.

Ne-Yo introduces the album by way of a contrived dialogue presenting the content as “complete fiction…made up of a group of true stories…thus making the story real.” One of his main talking points, he laughs, is “the women: a drug you use that uses you right back.” While artistic license certainly permits generalization when it comes to romance, the liberty with which he uses that here is surprisingly sub-par for an artist who once meant “no disrespect” to his female subjects, even when they were “fussing.” However, he does launch into specifics on the opening “Everybody Loves/The Def of You,” in which he expounds upon a woman whom he only hears from “right around the BET Awards, the VMA’s, and Billboard’s” and who uses him to “get closer to Trey Songz, Chris Brown, and maybe even Jigga.” This uncreative name-dropping and trendy talk might garner Ne-Yo more airplay; but it adds nothing of merit to a melodic structure that pales in comparison to most of his successful songs.

On the subsequent “Run,” the phrasing and flow is more fulfilling and vocally compelling (although Schoolboy Q’s romp about “pimpin’” briefly kills the mood), while “Integrity” is a nice deviation via its showcase of Ne-Yo’s lovely falsetto range. The best example of his signature style amongst the ballads, however, is the understated “Take You There,” on which his riffing and self-harmonizing is pure pleasure. The words are more tastefully intertwined in this case also: “Just submit to my love/Bite your lip and grip the sheets…Your body worshipped by mine is what this night holds for us/And If we happen to fall in love, I’m not opposed/Grown enough to handle the real.” The sway of the groove and mood of the production are slightly reminiscent of 2012’s “Lazy Love,” but more accessible.

Slow jams aside, the more rhythmic components of Non-Fiction are notably cohesive and well-executed. Recent singles “Who’s Taking You Home” and “Coming with You” both elicit kinetic tendencies with smooth grooves and ear-catching refrains. The latter, in particular, meshes a subtle new jack swing sensibility with modern electric piano stylings that give Ne-Yo an ideal platform to lay back and deliver a compelling performance. “They wanna hate you, hate on your good ‘cause you’re so damn bad,” he converses in a measured stance that slightly channels the King of Pop. “I don’t condone, but I understand it/‘Cause it just ain’t no fair that you look like that,” he continues. Much more palatable than the gotta-be-hard type of compliments bestowed within some of the other cuts.

With perhaps one or two exceptions, the remainder of Non-Fiction is an arduous task through which to muddle. It’s tough to say which is harder to stomach: Juicy J’s opening rap on “She Knows” (on which he spouts off about “shoot[ing] in they face like that boy Reggie Miller” and “kill[ing] that pu**y like my name, Jack the Ripper”) or the egocentric “She Said I’m Hood Tho’” (which finds Ne-Yo detailing an encounter with a girl who finds him “cuter in real life than on TV” and informing her that he “can have anything, but I don’t want just anything”). Let’s go with the former track. In addition to the offensive messages, the “musical arrangement” is on the monotonous side. Then, just when it seems things might get a bit sweeter with the calm acoustic backdrop of “Story Time,” we’re subjected to a pestering character who accuses his girl of “acting funny” for not wanting to invite a girlfriend to take part in a threesome (the back-and-forth banter about the subject is ultimately taken to another level when Ne-Yo relays the young woman’s frustration that if she said she “wanted to bring in another guy…you’re lookin’ like you wanna punch me in the eye’’—to which he replies, ‘Don’t tempt me’). Perhaps this agitated tale is Ne-Yo’s personal rebuff to tabloid rumors questioning his sexuality. Whatever it is, though, it comes off as juvenile and lacks any of the musical sensitivity for which he is widely known.

The closing track of Non-Fiction, the melancholy “Congratulations,” is of some redeeming value. With a melodious feel that brings to mind “So Sick” and a classier lyrical stance, it’s likely to strike a chord with fans who have followed Ne-Yo since he started recording a decade ago. “Kind of sucks that we aren’t what we were, but congratulations,” he sings. “I won’t hate/Glad you found the man that treats you like you deserve.” It’s both a bittersweet and ironic ending to an album that could have been much more. Excepting a handful of tunes that prove he’s still got heart in his soul, Non-Fiction is on the whole a scattered and pretentious assortment of tracks which aim to reposition Ne-Yo as a ‘hard’ artist who places more value on flavor-of-the-moment themes and attention-getting rap cameos than authentic songwriting and unaffected singing. “Congratulations” would indeed be in order for him successfully accomplishing that task—only problem is, he’s risking alienating many of his longtime fans in the process. Cautiously recommended.

by Justin Kantor

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