"I pride myself on being the type of artist who can work half in the R&B world and half in the pop world."
That was one of Ne-Yo's first messages to industry colleagues who attended his intimate showcase at New York's Joe's Pub on Oct. 23, a message that also doubles as a mission state- ment for his fifth studio album, "R.E.D." (Nov. 6, Universal Motown). An almost even split of his trademark R&B-and-dancefloor-focused EDM pop (with a bit of Tim McGraw-assisted country soul thrown in), " R.E.D." (short for "Realizing Every Dream") is a full-throttle return to form after 2010's experimental concept album "Libra Scale" sold a disappointing 345,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, following three albums that all went platinum. Single "Beautiful Monster" was also a letdown, peaking at No. 52 on the Billboard Hot 100.
"'Libra Scale' got a little too cool for the room," Ne-Yo said in an earlier interview with Billboard. "R.E.D.," however, is "one of my better pieces of work." The title was inspired by positive developments in the 33-year-old singer's life that evoked the color: a branding deal with Malibu Red tequila rum, which named Ne-Yo its chief creative director (and equity partner); a side career in acting that included a role in this year's "Red Tails;" and his new gig as senior VP of A&R at Universal Motown.
The lattermost coincided with his exit from longtime label Island Def Jam. The move was designed to make Ne-Yo the flagship artist of a revamped Motown -- "the new Smokey Robinson of the label," senior VP Ethiopia Habtemariam (who is also a VP at Universal Music Publishing) says. "He has such an incredible ear and can provide a great level of mentorship [and] advice for artists. He himself has such a great work ethic, and after working with him for the last couple of months it's amazing to see."
Ne-Yo's other role as in-demand songwriter for pop and R&B artists should help explain why Universal Music Publishing Group renewed its global publishing deal with him. "Ne- Yo is... one of the most timeless and greatest songwriters of his generation," UMPG North America president Evan Lamberg says. "He transcends all genres, and as an artist -- along with incredible guidance from his manager [Reynell "Tango" Hay of Compound Entertainment] -- has set the standard in how to launch and continue a career."
Habtemariam adds that Ne-Yo's diversity as a songwriter and artist is a particular strength: He's recently penned songs for new and upcoming projects with Celine Dion, Rihanna and Rick Ross, and also collaborated with Nash- ville songwriter Luke Laird ( Rascal Flatts, Carrie Underwood) on the McGraw duet "She Is" on R.E.D. "He's just a true music lover and likes to do it all," she says.
Ne-Yo took the jack-of-all-trades status one step further at his Joe's Pub gig, joking to the crowd, "I want to get to a place where you might put me on a polka track and I might just knock that bitch out."
But until Ne-Yo's accordion days arrive, his gradual transition into dance-pop seems to be connecting with more listeners these days than the R&B core that made early hits like "So Sick," "When You're Mad" and "Be- cause of You" (not to mention Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable" and Rihanna's "Take a Bow," which Ne-Yo wrote) such genre touchstones. "Give Me Everything," a four-on-the-floor collaboration with Pitbull, was Billboard's No. 1 airplay track of 2011, while the Calvin Harris-produced "Let's Go" was a top 20 hit this summer. Current single "Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself)," which holds at No. 9 on the Billboard Hot 100 this week, became Ne-Yo's first top 10 single since 2008's "Miss Independent" -- and Motown's biggest international hit since Boyz II Men's "End of the Road" in 1992.
Ne-Yo recorded more than 150 tracks for "R.E.D." during a nearly 18-month period before deciding on the 17 included on the deluxe edition. "He's really grown in singing and with international audiences, so we had to make sure that this album encompassed everybody and everything it can," says Tishawn Gayle, co-manager of Ne-Yo at Compound.
"R.E.D." will also be aided by nearly six full months of prerelease singles being worked to radio in different formats -- "Lazy Love" in May, "Let Me Love You" in June, "Don't Make 'Em Like You" (featuring Wiz Khalifa) in October and, this month, the Stargate-produced dance-pop track "Forever Now." "Having a long setup gave us the chance to re-establish him among this new consumer base," Motown senior VP of marketing Phillanna Williams says. "He loves R&B, but the soul of Ne-Yo's music and his voice can transcend the typical rhythmic pop song." Habtemariam adds that Ne-Yo has also been taking his A&R role "very seriously." In fact, sometimes he's put new acts ahead of his own music. "There's one record in particular where I had him just going in to write for someone on Motown," she says, "and his manager came in and said, 'Hey, can we keep this song for the album?' And Ne-Yo was like, 'I'm going to lose my job.'"