"I know that the game has changed a little bit and now it takes a little bit more to keep people's attention, and that's just something I'm not really about," he tells Billboard. "I'm not gonna do something crazy just to get them to look in my direction. If the music and the quality of music is not enough to get your attention, then maybe I'm not who you're supposed to be paying attention to in the first place."
Billboard spoke to Ne-Yo about his forthcoming performance at the Hulu Theater, why Good Man was an A-plus project in his eyes, if a Best of Both Worlds album with Fabolous is still in the cards, which Christmas songs he would remix and why the idea of being an independent artist entices him.
You're performing at the Hulu Theater on Saturday. Do you still get any jitters performing in NYC, especially since it's considered the Mecca of music?
To be honest with you brother, I still get jitters performing anywhere, especially New York. I've always told myself if I ever get to that place where I'm not nervous, then it's time to quit because I don't care no more. So, with that being said, yes, there's always nerves but you gotta figure out what those nerves are going to be, if you're going to use them as fuel or if you're going to let them stop you from doing what you gotta do. It's kind of like that fight-or-flight moment right before you get on stage. Your heart is beating real fast, you have big ass butterflies in your stomach and the whole nine, and you gotta make a decision: Am I going to get out here and do what I gotta do or am I going to take my ass home? So normally, I make the right decision and I go out there and get it done.
Smart, man. Now, give me a compare and contrast between In My Words Ne-Yo versus Good Man Ne-Yo in terms of performance level.
In My Own Words Ne-Yo as a performer was a little green, you know what I mean? I wasn't as seasoned as I am now, you know? There was more of an anxiousness and an excitement to get out there as opposed to thinking about the strategy of what it takes to do a proper show and to keep the energy up the entire show. Like, where you dance versus where you stop dancing so that you can really sing, I didn't know all of that in the beginning. In the beginning, it was, "We here! OK, let's go, let's go, let's go." As time progressed, I started learning the tricks of the trade like jogging on the treadmill and singing at the same time so that you can get that bounce out of your voice when you move and all of that. These are all things I had to learn on the road, too.
Good Man Ne-Yo, I'm seasoned at this point, bro. It's been like what? 13 years since I've been here? [Laughs]. So I definitely know what I gotta do when I get up there. I know how to command a crowd. I know when to give the control to them, I know when to take the control back. I know what to do with my breathing and my breath control and the whole nine. If I do say so myself, it's a better show now then it was before.
With every show that you do now, because you're a pro, how do you prevent your performances from becoming routine? Do you still take certain chances on stage?
Yeah, always. You have to take chances on stage because otherwise, that's exactly what happens. Anybody in the audience that has seen me perform before, you do it exactly the same way then they're not getting their money worth and that's the ultimately no-no. You can't ask someone to pay to come see you and you're not giving them something worth their money. So, with that being said, you gotta take chances, you gotta try different stuff while you're on stage. I mean, of course there's a general routine like, "OK. We're gonna do this song and this song and this song and this is a break, and there's this song," but in the realm of that, you gotta switch it up a little bit. Like, "Normally on this song, I'd be on the left side of the stage singing to the crowd. Today, I'm going stay on the riser and when the explosion happens, I'm going to hit the ground like a damn superhero or something."
Your album Good Man dropped in June. Looking back on the album's release almost six months later, what letter grade would you give the project now and why?
Album is an A+ to me, brother. I am my own biggest fan. I have to be that. What I learned over the years is that I can't let other people's opinions dictate how I feel about me or other people's opinions dictate how I feel about my work. Like if I'm proud of it, I don't give a damn if the shit sells two copies. If I'm proud of it, it's a success. That's the way I look at it because otherwise you're allowing somebody else to be in charge of your happiness and the way you feel about yourself. I can't have that, I can't allow that.
You know, we live in a world where anybody can be anything they want. You can be a man and decide to be a woman and you can be a woman and decide you wanna be a man. You can do whatever the hell you want in this life so why would I concern myself with anybody's opinion but my own in regards to something I feel passionate about? So with that being said, I think the album is very, very strong. I know that the game has changed a little bit and now it takes a little bit more to keep people's attention and that's just something I'm not really about. I'm not gonna do something crazy just to get them to look in my direction. If the music and the quality of music is not enough to get your attention then maybe I'm not who you're supposed to be paying attention to in the first place. You know, I'm not waiting on, "Oh, how much did he sell this week? Oh man, what did so and so say about it?" I don't care no more. My fans can tell me what they think about the music and that's important.
Do you feel comfortable saying that because you already have a Hall of Fame-worthy career and that at this moment in time you don't necessarily have to chase after accolades?
That's one part of it. I've been here long enough and I done enough to where I have a lot to be proud of. You know, I accomplished a lot in the time that I've been here. That's definitely part of it. I don't feel like I have anything to prove to anybody anymore. But then on the other side of it, this is almost a mind-state that I would recommend for a new artist coming out. You can't sit back and wait on somebody to validate you. That's not how it works. If that's the case, you're going to be chasing that validation your entire career and the second somebody says the opposite of what you think they should [say], you're going to be devastated.
So in the realm of that, it has to be fire to you first and if nobody else feels the same way, you can't change your opinion on it because they don't feel the way you feel. You gotta decide yourself if you like this or if you're proud of this. If you are, then let the chips fall where they're going to fall because at the end of the day, you can't force nobody to do nothing no way. So if they don't like it, they don't like it. That's that.
It's interesting you say that because last weekend, Queen Naija did the Soul Cypher at the Soul Train Awards and Lil Mo was critical of her. Being that you did it two years ago, with the new artists coming up, how do you encourage them to stay grounded and motivated despite the criticism they may face from people of your class or era?
It starts with acceptance of self and I know that's way easier said then done. I totally get that and some people wrestle with that their whole life in terms of accepting themselves and accepting figuring out what they love about themselves. Lil Mo had something to say about Queen Naija's performance, OK, I don't doubt that Lil Mo was the only one who had something to say about Queen Naija's performance, but what should be important to Queen Naija is how Queen Naija felt about her performance. If she felt like she didn't get up there and give it her all then that's something she needs to rectify, but never should she ever feel some type of way because somebody else had something negative to say about it.
If you wanna do it that way, it's not like anybody on the face of the planet has ever done a perfect show every single time they touched that stage. Lil Mo done messed up before. So what makes her opinion the end all? It doesn't. There is no end all other than the person performing. You're your own end all. You don't feel like you did what you needed to do? Aight, go ahead and prove. Go ahead and prove so that the next time you go and touch that stage, make sure that nobody got nothing to say.
You've obviously written hits for R&B artists in the past, and I'm curious: Why do you feel writing for other artists is more acceptable in R&B than in rap?
I think that at one point in time that was more serious than it is now. You know, I think as far as hip-hop goes it's a little bit more accepted to have a co-writer or even a ghostwriter now as long as the joint is slammin' and it's a bop, so it won't matter. But at one point, hip-hop used to be based on your personal skill-set, how dope you were as an MC and it kinda look phony if you were out there spittin' rhymes that somebody else wrote for you. You looked cheesy.
But on the other side as far as songwriting goes, it's not so much about who wrote the song as it is about the power of the song, you know? Some of the greatest songs on the face of the planet were not written by the artist that sang them, but were it not for those artists that sang them, I don't know if those songs would have gotten the same recognition. That's the give and take of it. Like alright, it's somebody else's words but if it's something I feel passionately about and can perform passionately, then it doesn't matter that I didn't write it, unless it's a song that I don't know nothing about and I don't have no business singing about, in which case that's different. That's the same thing with hip-hop, don't do a song about killing everybody in the world if you ain't a killer because somebody is gonna test you one day. But nowadays, it's about how a song hits a person. It's not even so much about how wrote it anymore.
Drake is easily one of the biggest artists in the last 10, 20 years and he has admittingly said that he co-writes. He said it. Now mind you, it's not taking anything away from Drake as a writer 'cause at this point we know, dude is amazing. But, on the other side of it, he's smart. That's not only going at it from an artist standpoint but a businessman standpoint. OVO is a team and he's like, "We're going to get in this studio and we're gonna do what's right for the team." Meaning, if my man over here has a dope idea, alright, let's talk that angle. If my man over here has dope angle, let's talk that angle, plus my idea" or whatever the case may be, it's a collaborative effort. And there's nothing wrong with that as long as the end result is quality.
I don't think people realize that Drake songwrites himself. He did Alicia Keys' "Unthinkable" and Jamie Foxx's "Fall for Your Type," but for some reason, that's all been swept under the rug.
Yeah, I think people find a reason to hate and try to find a reason to feel some kind of way. Like "Oh, he didn't write that? Oh, that's bullshit." Nah, that ain't what it's about, especially if he ain't out here saying, "I wrote it all myself. I didn't need anybody to help me. I did it all by myself," then that's different because it's like, "Nah bro, we can look at the credits and see that there's other names under that song. So it wasn't just you." But that's not what Drake is doing. He's letting it be known and still that doesn't take away from him and what he's capable of.
I think that the beef with him and Meek initially kind of showed us the change of the era because Meek came out like, "Yo, you have this other cat behind him that's writing this and writing that" and the world was like, "So?" where at one point in time, that would have been the nail in the coffin with hip-hop, but that ain't the case no more. The times have changed. You kind of gotta rock with what it is now or sit in the basement and be mad all the time.
You have your son Mason and I'm curious, if you can pick three songs from your album Good Man that you would let him listen to later on in life in hopes of knowing what a good man is, which ones would you choose and why?
"Good Man," "Apology" and "U Deserve."
I need my son to know above anything else that respect for women is not optional. You give the respect and then you allow that woman to decide whether or not she keeps it or gives it back, that's the way it's supposed to go. You don't come out the gate disrespecting anybody, you know? Women deserve respect and that's the bottom line. If you're going to be a good man to a good woman, then you have to be able to self-reflect, you have to be able to humble yourself and admit when you was wrong about something and then be able to genuinely apologize for it. You have to be attentive to know what it is this women deserves and be able to give it to her. These are the things that I try to nail home for my male children. I have three boys over here. Three boys and a girl. So I'm making sure everybody knows what respect is. You give it, and then you allow the person you're giving it to decide whether they want to keep it.
You're someone I always thought would have done a Best of Both Worlds type of album with a rapper, especially Fabolous. In 2018, if you could do a Best of Both Worlds with any MC dead or alive, who would you choose and why?
I'm still gonna keep Fab, man. Fab is one of those rappers I still wish that we got that to go. Scheduling and timing is the only thing that didn't permit that. You know, when I was moving left, he was moving right and vice versa. That's the only reason why that didn't happen. And then, everybody just kind of went their separate ways on things they had rocking within themselves and we just never got around to it. That's not to say that it'll never happen. Fab is one of the few cats in the industry that I can call friend and it's real and genuine, like he's an actual friend. So that's still a possibility I feel.
As far as anybody else, I'm really impressed by the cleverness of a Drake. I love what it is that he does. He doesn't say typical shit, at least not in every song. He figured out how to make it just intelligent enough and yet just simple enough to where everybody understands. That takes a skill-set. That's not easy to do. So I would love to do something with him. I ain't even mad at some of these young cats out here. Rich the Kid, I like what he does. I wouldn't call him a lyricist per sé, but he has a vibe and a swagger that he does that's entertaining. I'm basically a chameleon. I can put myself in anything and can adapt and adjust. I feel like that can be something. I don't know. It's definitely something I would have to sit down and think about for a bit.
If you can pick three Christmas songs that you can remix, which three would you choose and why?
"This Christmas" is a given. That's a classic. So definitely that one. "Silent Night," but it would have to be The Temptations version. I would take their version and spruce it up. Third one? Good question. I love "Noel." I feel like I can do something with that and make that an R&B Christmas if I wanted. *Starts singing*
Lastly, if you can choose one word to title this chapter of your life, which word would that be and why?
Happy. I am extremely, ridiculously happy with everything in my life right now. I have a beautiful wife that loves my dirty draws and vice versa. I have four beautiful, intelligent children, smart as hell, like just genius smart kids, bro. My financial situation is in a good place, my mama is healthy and happy, I have no complaints in my life right now. Even in the realm of my career, we have World of Dance and we're currently shooting season three of that. We just finished season two of Step Up: High Water, which is a TV show that we did for YouTube Red. I'm about to start on my eighth and final album for Motown at the top of the year, which I'll probably release second or third quarter. Good Man is out right now. Fans have been loving it and I'm really in a good place.