For his sixth studio album, Non-Fiction (Motown, Jan. 27), Ne-Yo took a different approach. Instead of looking inward for the 19-track set, the 32-year-old singer-songwriter, who does double duty as Motown senior vp A&R, crowd-sourced love stories from fans through social media for inspiration. Though the concept album isn’t entirely his own truth, he says his main goal was to create a narrative you can get lost in: “The one element of good storytelling is being able to take your listener on a ride.”
Why did you decide to incorporate your fans into the songwriting process?
They have very common stories — it’s something us guys go through on a regular basis, and it’s definitely something that women have been a part of as well at some point in their lives. I want people to listen to these stories and find themselves within them. The hardest thing about putting this together was looking at yourself in the mirror and picking yourself apart: not being afraid or ashamed to admit when you’ve done something wrong. That’s something guys have an issue with a lot of the time. But I’ve kind of accepted that my role in R&B is to say things for guys they either don’t want to say or can’t say.
How much of the album is drawn from your experiences, and how much is drawn from fans?
About half and half. I knew I wanted to tell my story, but I wanted this to be a little more special than just me putting out another album. This is me and my fans’ first collaborative effort, and definitely not the last.
Non-Fiction is a concept album, but do you think fans will listen to it as a whole project, rather than just a group of songs?
Not really. I know everyone says attention spans are shorter now and if you can’t get them in the first 20 seconds, you lost them. But I honestly believe if you give someone something worth slowing down to really pay attention to, they will.
Some say R&B is at a low point. What do you think of the current state of the genre?
There will always be a trend that will come along and people will jump on it, love it for whatever it is and then move on to the next trend. The core of R&B doesn’t die, and that’s what I’m paying attention to the most. I’m a fan of FKA Twigs, The Weeknd. I love that kind of ambient R&B. I feel like it’s just another soldier in the war to blur the lines and make things to where it’s good music and bad music. All genres of music have to evolve, grow and expand in order to maintain. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the growth of R&B. I welcome it.
In addition to the album, you‘re planning to direct an accompanying film.
A movie in itself is just a story. I want people to listen to these songs and be able to see these characters, see these scenarios, see these situations play out. I think it makes for a better listening experience.
This story will appear in the Feb. 14 issue of Billboard.