“I’m happy that after 15 years, somebody still gives a damn about a Ne-Yo song.” For a star who has three Grammy wins and 15 nominations, as well as 12 Top 10 hits, hearing this humility is quite refreshing. But maybe that’s the magic behind Ne-Yo’s success. After a brief stint as a member of late-‘90s R&B group Envy and unsuccessfully trying to land a record deal, the Las Vegas native shifted his solo artist dreams to becoming a songwriter.
After writing for artists like Marques Houston and Christina Milian, his breakthrough occurred in 2004 with Mario’s “Let Me Love You,” which topped the Billboard Hot 100 for nine consecutive weeks. Soon, more eyes were on Ne-Yo, and he secured a deal with Def Jam in 2005. A year later, his debut album In My Own Words arrived.
The album, which celebrates its 15th anniversary on Feb. 28, was an immediate success: it debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, earned a Grammy nomination for best contemporary R&B album and featured “So Sick,” his signature single that doubles as his first chart-topper.
Since its release, Ne-Yo has gone on to write hits for the likes of Beyoncé and Rihanna, and collaborate with artists like Pitbull and Calvin Harris, while continuing to release Top 10 albums. Now, he’s prepping to release his eighth album this Spring. But the humility remains.
“I know how fickle this business can be. I know how short attention spans are now. I know there’s a whole new generation coming out behind what I did,” he tells Billboard. “So the fact that anybody still cares is a blessing for me.”
He does admit the compliments have changed since his career debut: “Before I used to get stuff like, “The music is amazing. You done got me a lot of sex. Thank you, brother!’ And now I get, ‘Oh my God, you were my whole childhood!’ I mean, it’s a reminder that I ain’t a spring chicken no more, and that’s fine.”
Below, Ne-Yo looks back on the “happy accident” that led to signing with Def Jam and the memories of all the hits (and a few deep cuts) found on In My Own Words.
‘I’M HUNGRY — AND ALL OF A SUDDEN, THAT’S THE AUDITION’
I would say “Let Me Love You” with Mario was your “big break”. But, of course, your songwriting credits go way beyond that.
But that was definitely a major start. That Mario record was kind of the marble that you put at the top of the snow hill and when you push it, it just gets bigger and bigger, bigger, bigger.
But how was that hustle back then? You know, trying to secure a record deal, but also writing on the side.
So when I did the Mario record, I wasn’t trying to be an artist at that time. Okay, so short story: I got a meeting with Dr. Dre, and it was potentially to sign me as an artist. I go in, and of course it’s the iconic Dr. Dre. So I’m tripping a little bit. He knows that I’m a writer. So every track that he gave me already had a song on it. He was trying to decide between me and this other artist, whose name I cannot remember right now. So he would play the track and say, “You think you can write something to this?”
I’m like, “Yeah!” And then he would play the song that was attached to the track. So I do the records — and ultimately he ended up going with the other guy, cause he was a little bit more “hood” than I was. But in the process of these meetings, I met [producer] Scott Storch. I remember I was feeling a little down, because [Dre] declined. was like, “You’re dope, but I’m going to go in a different direction.” So I run into Scott as I’m leaving, and he’s like, “Yo, I don’t know what the hell Dre talking about, but you’re dope. And if you ever find yourself in Miami, look me up…” At the time I didn’t, I didn’t know who Scott Storch was. I just knew he played piano. But I didn’t know the slew of hits that he had already had.
So my manager gets me down to Miami. [Storch] just happens to be working for Mario that week. We did, I think, three songs. And “Let Me Love You” was the second song that we did. At the time we knew it was something special, but we had no idea that it was going to do what it did. So I wasn’t trying to be an artist at this point. After that whole Dr. Dre thing happened, I’m like, “All right, clearly I’m not supposed to be an artist. I’m gonna just write for other people.” So there was no balance. There was no artistry at this point, it was just writing.
So what made you decide to pursue becoming an artist? What switched?
A happy accident, to be honest with you. You said that I was part of your high school career, so you may not know a group called Somethin’ For the People. Do you remember this group?
No, I haven’t heard of them.
You should look them up. But my vocal producer and head engineer [was Curtis “Sauce” Wilson], everybody calls him Sauce. He was a part of Somethin’ For the People. We were in New York shopping music around different labels, playing songs for A&Rs and whatnot, you know? So it was the end of the day, and we’re headed back to the hotel and it was on the way to the Def Jam building. So we didn’t go in ‘cause we had already been there trying to shop songs a few days earlier. But he was like, “Let me run back up because I learned that a friend of mine from high school works here and I haven’t seen her in years. Let me just say what’s up right quick.”
His friend was Tina Davis, who at the time was head of A&R for Def Jam records. Mind you, I don’t know who she is yet. I just know that this is a really, really, really big office. So clearly she’s somebody, right? So I’m in the corner of the room, twiddling thumbs and waiting on them to do the whole “reunited and it feels so good” type thing. Then she says to him, “So what have you been up to?” [He responds]: “I’m working with writers just like this one.” So we start playing the music. Now, I write and reference all of my records. So if I’m shopping a record, it’s going to be my voice on it. So she’s bopping her head slightly and turns the music up: “Get up, show me something.”
We literally came up for him to say “hey” to a friend, and was headed to get something to eat. [Laughs.] I’m hungry — and all of a sudden, that’s the audition. So me not being one to back down from a challenge, I perform the records. I’m all in her face with it, and the whole time she’s giving me a complete deadpan [expression], no emotion whatsoever. So I’m like, “This is a bust, but I don’t care, because this ain’t what I’m here for anyway.” She says to me, “Are there any artists out there who keep you on your toes?” I said, “Not really,” ‘cause I’m not really trying to be an artist right now.
But then almost like clockwork, Usher’s “Yeah” video came on the TV. And I was like, “When I was trying to be an artist, probably that dude right there.” She picks up a phone and she goes, hello, “Mr. Reid? I think I have somebody you might want to meet.” Now I knew the name L.A. Reid. So we go up to his office, [which] is him and his tastemakers. He goes, “So you’re the next big thing?” So she puts on the same song that I performed for her.
Do you remember the name of the song that you performed?
It was a song that was going to actually wind up on my first album, but we ended up not going with it. I think it was called “Dying on the Inside” or something like that, and then there was another song called “YLENOL”, which spells “lonely” backward. It’s the concept of sitting in a taxi cab and writing “lonely” on the window and looking from the outside, it would be backward. So I was very proud of that. [Laughs.] But anyway, I performed for them. They all gave me deadpan faces, no emotion, no feedback whatsoever. Then when I was done, he was like, “Thank you very much. Can you guys step outside? Let me talk to my people right quick.”
So we go outside in the lobby. We’re sitting out there for like an hour. I turned to Sauce: “Bro, let’s go. It don’t take this long for them to decide if they want to do something or not.” Plus I wasn’t really tripping. ‘Cause again, we’re not here for this. So we get up and as we’re leaving, the assistant pops their head and says, “Mr. Reid would like to know your lawyer’s information. He wants to give you a deal.”
Whoa. So what was running through your mind at that moment?
At that moment, what was running through my mind was, “What the f–k is happening right now?” Before, I was trying to do the solo artist thing and it just wasn’t working. Like nobody was interested. So the second I say, “to hell with the artist thing” and just be a writer, a record deal literally fell in my lap. You want to make God laugh? Try to plan your life.
That’s a fact. So you got the record deal now. Was there a moment you were like, “Should I actually take this deal? Is being an artist something that I want to do?”
I was a little reluctant. Prior to this situation, prior to Dr. Dre, I had a whole other record deal with Columbia Records. It was my first record deal ever. I was just so green that I didn’t say “no” to anything. I was literally their little puppet. “Don’t write those types of songs. Don’t work with those producers.” We got like all the way to the finish line, album and artwork are done. It’s meant to come out at this point.
They tell me, “This is your single.” But I’m listening to it and I don’t recognize the voice. I’m like, “This is not me. This is their version of me.” So I go to my A&R and asked if I can do some more records. Some stuff that kind of leans more towards who I am. They’re like, “No, your budget is depleted.” Now mind you, this is when I learned that when an A&R takes you to the fancy restaurant and pulls out that credit card out —
Oh that’s coming out of your check!
You come in town and they go, “Hey man, you want to hit Mr. Chow’s?” A $5,000 dinner, with no clue that you just paid for it. So once that happened, I rebelled: “I’m not doing this. I won’t [promote] the album. I won’t do shows, nothing.” So I was shelved on Columbia Records for like two years. They wouldn’t do anything with me. My manager finally goes in and you know, lawyers, lawsuits, blah, blah, blah. They finally let me go, but kept the whole album. This left a very bad taste in my mouth about record deals, period. That on top of the fact that I just kept getting rejected everywhere.
So when L.A. Reid tells me that he wants to do a deal …mind you, at this time I’m writing, and I’m making a decent living. So I said, “I need you to understand that I want this, but I don’t need this. I’m not about to let y’all change me into something that is the complete opposite of who the hell I am.” And at that moment he said the most beautiful words I ever heard: “I like what you do already. Why would I change you?”
Finally, someone that gets it!
Thank you. And it was literally smooth sailing from there. I think the only slight bump in the road was at the time I didn’t really wear jewelry. I just didn’t grasp the concept of spending so much money on something that was so small. L.A. Reid and Jay-Z had to force me to buy my first chain.
Did you feel that pressure because you were a songwriter you had to step it up a little bit?
That part. Everybody knew that I could do it for somebody else because this was after the Mario record. But the question throughout the building was, “Can he do it for himself?” So, there was a little pressure in regard to that. But I had to take it upon myself to be like, “You know what? We’re not even about to compare the two. I’m not about to set this super ridiculous high standard for myself. So let’s just have fun with this and the hits will come.”
‘IT’S A NAKED BODY IN A COFFEE TABLE BOOK VERSUS HUSTLER’
So I want to start with “Stay.” For me, it’s one of those timeless party starters. If the DJ puts it on, the party goes up to a 10.
That really, really feels good. Shout out to Peedi Crack, wherever he is in the world. That was Jay-Z’s doing. The song was finished and Jay’s listening to it like, “it needs a hip-hop element.” So he added the scratches in the beginning, and then Peedi’s part. That song was actually one of the first songs that we recorded specifically for the album.
Next is “So Sick.” Would you call it your signature song?
Definitely the one that started it all. So this is when I learned a little something about the way that records are released — or at least in the book of L.A. Reid. He says, “So we’re going to put out ‘Stay’ first and it’s not going to blow up. This is not your, ‘Oh my God, we just killed the chart’ song. This is your introduction.”
It did pretty well on the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart, but not so much on the Hot 100.
Yeah. L.A. Reid was like, “It’s not going to take you to the top, but it’s going to be enough to get their attention. And then once we got their attention, ‘So Sick.’” But he was right.
I’m not even trying to blow your head up. But “So Sick” is a perfect song, from the production to your lyrics and the video showing you heartbroken in the hills of Aspen.
So much fun. I remember that was my first time ever being in Aspen. My first time ever being that cold. [Laughs.] So the Hype Williams version of “So Sick” was not the first video. We shot a whole ‘nother video with a different director. L.A. Reid saw it and was like, “This video is not big enough for this record.” Then he called Hype: “Let’s get the big dogs in here”. Not taking nothing from the guy that did the first one. He did his thing.
What was the first video’s concept?
It was more hood. I’m walking down the street, and there’s water, so it had that gloss. There were old-school cars and I had a bomber jacket. It was extremely New York and it felt a little bit like a rapper’s video. And I think that’s why L.A. was like, “Nah this is an R&B/pop song. We need a video that speaks to that.” That’s why we went to Aspen because he said it just needs to be elevated. He was right.
The song became your first No. 1. It was your second single, but that was your breakout moment.
So at the time, things were moving so fast that every time something good happened, it was like, “Oh wait, what? That’s cool, let’s go on to the next.”
So you didn’t have time to soak it up?
No, not until almost 10 years later, when we finally slowed down. I remember for the third album [2008’s Year of the Gentleman] we toured for like two years straight. We just never sat still. It was just like, “Oh, by the way, you just won a Grammy.” It was just constant movement for a good 10-year span. Again, marble at the top of the hill. Once it started moving, it didn’t stop to the point where we didn’t even realize it’s been 10 years.
I look back on it and I kind of prefer to just let the blessings come. I feel like that’s how God wants you to live your life. If he gives you a blessing, don’t bask in it for too long. Say “thank you” and keep it pushing.
I want to bring up “When You’re Mad” next. Why do guys love when us women get mad?
I can’t speak for all men, but I wrote the song about the young lady that I was dealing with at the time. She had a very little nose and whenever she would get mad at me, she would do this. [Proceeds to scrunch up his nose.] It literally looked like a child pouting, and it was just the cutest thing ever to me. And that would make her even madder. But I just thought that that was an interesting contrast. Like, that really turns me on when you be mad. She didn’t like what the song was about. She was like, “Don’t be funny.”
I do enjoy that as a songwriter, you put all of your life experiences into your music.
Well, I’ve learned over the years to fake it. I can write fiction. But I’ve also learned that if it’s something that I’ve genuinely lived through, or an emotion that I’ve genuinely felt, the song just always comes out that much better.
And it’s more special for us listeners. Speaking of, “Sexy Love” is in my top three Ne-Yo songs. It reminds me of being wrapped in love. It’s very comforting.
Thank you. I’ve never done an album without [Norwegian producer/songwriter duo] Stargate. So that was the fourth song that we ever did together. So they would give me kind of a skeletal track; it might be just some keys and a drum. Then I’ll write to that. The next time I heard the song, it would be a completely different beat. They would take what I wrote and catered the beat to the song, thus making the perfect song. I was always fascinated by that. I know people that get locked into the one idea and that was never the case with them.
There was a slight debate in the building after we put out “So Sick” about what should come next. Initially, my A&Rs wanted “Sexy Love” to come right after and not “When You’re Mad.” I never [understood] the debate. I didn’t know nothing about song setups or none of that shit, but L.A. again is very strategic about the way he did things: “It’s the jab and then the knockout punch.” I’m like, “Why we can’t just knock them out? Why we throwing out all these jabs?” [Laughs.] He was like, “Trust me, it matters. This is so that you don’t get too big too soon, and then come down too soon.” I didn’t get it at the time, but now it makes perfect sense.
I mean, you’re still here 15 years later.
Right, right. I will say there’s one song on the album that I wanted as a single.
That was actually going to be one of my questions.
I wanted to do “Mirror” as a single and for whatever reason, my A&R just felt like it wouldn’t work.
“Mirror” is a fan favorite for sure. It’s on a lot of people’s top 10 lists.
Yeah, always. But they just felt like my personality wasn’t going to be what was needed to carry that record to where it needed to go — until they came on tour and saw me perform it. My A&R by the way at the time was [Tyran “Ty Ty” Smith]. He’s famous for being Jay-Z’s right-hand man, and he’s done amazing things in the industry. That was the first time he ever apologized to me. The way that we would do it [on stage] was to bring all the lights down and we bring out these 20-foot mirrors.
Then I have all the dancers in front of the mirrors. Him watching the people’s response to this show was like, “I didn’t see it. I get it now.” But by that time we were already moved on to whatever else we was doing. So it was too late for that to be a single — but I felt good that somebody that I felt knew more about the industry thought that I had a good idea.
Did they think you didn’t have the sex appeal to carry the song?
Maybe, because I’ve never been that dude, you know what I’m saying? I used to pride myself on getting the same amount of screams as the n—a with his shirt off. As opposed to stripping down, I will put on more clothes. I’m gonna put on a whole three-piece suit and get the same response that you’re getting half-naked. So they felt like, “You’re not trying to sell sex. This is clearly a really sexy song. How is this going to work?” Mind you, it’s not always about sexy. Sometimes it’s about [sensuality] and that’s what we would do on stage.
It wasn’t like a show that you couldn’t bring your kids to. I could perform “Mirror” in front of 12-year-olds and not have it be weird because we’re doing it with class. It’s art. It’s a naked body in a coffee table book versus Hustler. They didn’t know how to do it any other way than Hustler. So at least that was my theory on it — because I’ve never been that dude.
I think another song that could have been a single is “Let Go.” That’s a special one for me.
Me too, me too. “Let Go” was the second one me and Stargate ever did together after “So Sick.” I think we all knew that this was going to be a special connection because it just happened so easily. There are some songs that take a little more time. Sometimes you’ll get on a record and you won’t get it right. “So Sick” took me roughly three minutes to write and maybe an hour to cut.
Same thing with “Let Go.” We had to go back one time because they felt I could do a stronger hook. So I rewrote the hook and that took two hours. [I thought], “This is a connection that I’m not gonna find in a lot of places. I’m going to stay close to these cats.” Those are like my Norwegian brothers.
‘MUSIC IS BASICALLY JUST PASSION [SET] TO MELODY’
You said you were on this huge trajectory, but did you have a moment to celebrate when the album debuted at No. 1 or when it went twice platinum?
Um, yes and no. There were those album release parties and for every Grammys, we would throw an after-party. I remember one Grammy brunch, Prince and Stevie Wonder crashed my party. Not that they weren’t invited. I would have happily invited them, but I assumed that they wouldn’t even come. So I’m in the party and having a good time. My assistant comes to me and his face was white. I’m like, “What’s wrong with you?” He’s like “Bruh, Prince and Stevie Wonder are at the door. They want to come in.”
Prince is here and Stevie wonder is here [gestures to his left and right] and I’m sitting in between them in a booth like, “Oh my God, what am I supposed to do?” I have five artists that if I could meld them into one, that is who I aspired for Ne-Yo to become: Prince, Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Sammy Davis Jr. and Marvin Gaye. So this was a big deal for me. I want to tell them both how much of a fan I am, but I don’t want to be a fanboy. You know what I mean? So I’m trying to figure out what to say. I grabbed my drink and I take a sip of it. And Prince goes in that Prince tone: “What are you drinking?” I tell him cranberry and vodka. He goes, “Vodka is bad for you. Just put that down.”
That was all he said for the rest of the night. [Laguhs.] After about 45 minutes, they both got up and they left saying, “Thanks for having us.” That was a major moment.
I think the reason why you stayed strong for so long is because you’ve molded yourself with the times. You’ve experimented with EDM, “traditional” R&B, pop and your new “Shake” single has a Latin flair.
You’re supposed to. I don’t grasp the concept of being complacent in music. Music is basically just passion [set] to melody, and it’s supposed to swell. So if your music is right here, you’re not really giving it the passion that it deserves. I feel like in order to do that, you have to experiment. R&B was where music started for me.
But I grew up in Las Vegas and my mom had every job that you could do in a casino. So she would bring home all kinds of music at night. First, it was The Temptations and the OJs. Then it was Wayne Newton, The rat pack, Tom Jones, that big band sound. So that locked me into melody. I feel like that’s what’s kind of kept me in the good graces of people. They see that it doesn’t have to be just one genre with me.