Singer-songwriter Ne-Yo began his musical career while he was still a teenager, performing in his own amateur band and writing songs for professional musicians. By the time he was twenty-three, he had become coauthor of a hit song and had his own recording contract. His career has continued to develop rapidly, as Ne-Yo has become a sought-after songwriter for other recording artists and an award-winning performer in his own right. However, in an industry known for instant fame followed by instant obscurity, Ne-Yo is determined to become more than an overnight wonder. Captivated since childhood by the power of great songs to resonate across miles and generations, Ne-Yo draws on his own emotional experience in hopes of creating classic songs that will have an enduring power to move those who sing them or hear them.
Ne-Yo is the stage name of Shaffer Chimere Smith, who was born on October 18, 1982, in the southern Arkansas town of Camden. A member of a musical family of African-American and Chinese heritage, he developed a love of music at an early age. His father was absent through much of his childhood, and Ne-Yo's mother raised her children alone. Seeking better employment opportunities, she moved her family to Las Vegas, Nevada. There, growing up near the glamour and flash of the Las Vegas strip, young Ne-Yo began to dream of show business.
Found Success as a Songwriter
While in high school, he began performing with a group of friends in a rhythm and blues (R&B) band called Envy. While singing with Envy, Ne-Yo used the stage name Gogo. After graduation, the group went to Los Angeles, California, with a bold and theatrical plan: to sing outside the offices of Capitol Records until someone offered them a recording contract. They did attract the attention of Capitol executives, who threatened to call the police if they did not leave. However, Ne-Yo used his time in the music industry capital to make contact with other musicians in hopes of gaining work as a songwriter. His first success came with the sale of several songs to a boy group from Ohio called Youngstown. Youngstown included a number of Ne-Yo songs, such as "Don't Worry," "Lose My Cool," and "Float Away" on their albums Let's Roll and Down for the Get Down.
Even though Envy broke up in 2000, Ne-Yo remained in Los Angeles working to develop his music career. He began using the stage name Ne-Yo after a friend commented that he seemed to be able to "see" music, like the protagonist Neo in the 1999 science-fiction film The Matrix. A fan of the film, Ne-Yo enjoyed the comparison and adopted the name, changing the spelling to incorporate the hip-hop salute, "Yo!" Interestingly, the performer Ne-Yo is three years younger than his alter ego, Shaffer Smith.
Ne-Yo continued to write songs, frequently making demonstration tapes to show other singers how his music would sound. Before long, record company executives noticed the clear, expressive voice of the songwriter, and Ne-Yo finally won the recording contract he had sought. However, even though he recorded an album with Columbia Records, the company did not release it, believing that it did not contain the big radio hit necessary to ensure album sales. The company dropped his contract in 2003, and Ne-Yo decided to devote his energies to writing rather than performing.
After writing songs for a number of popular singers, including Marques Houston and Christina Milian, his breakthrough hit came in 2004, when Mario, a teenage R&B star, recorded "Let Me Love You," a poignant and complex love song, cowritten by Ne-Yo, Scott Storch, and Kam Houf. "Let Me Love You" reached number one on Billboard's R&B list and Hot 100 Singles chart and became one of the most-played records of the year on U.S. radio stations. Soon, Ne-Yo had another recording contract, this time with Def Jam Records, a hip-hop label that he felt would understand his music more completely.
Gained Fame as a Performer
In 2006 Def Jam released Ne-Yo's first album, In My Own Words, because he had written or cowritten each of its songs. The album sold over one million copies, with a hit single, "Stay," that reached Billboard's R&B Top 40 list. Another single, "Sexy Love," earned Ne-Yo a 2007 Soul Train award for Best R&B/Soul or Rap New Artist. One of the album's major hits, "So Sick," crossed over to reach the number-one position on Billboard's Pop Top 40 list. In My Own Words was followed in 2007 by Ne-Yo's second album, Because of You, a tribute to his pop music hero, Michael Jackson. The album's title cut won the Music of Black Origin award for best song of 2007.
As Ne-Yo's reputation as a songwriter continued to spread, a number of major music stars sought him out, not only R&B and hip-hop artists, such as Mary J. Blige, Beyoncé, and Rhianna, but also world famous pop stars, such as Celine Dion and Whitney Houston. Ne-Yo continued to draw on his personal experience to help him write meaningful lyrics. "Let Me Love You" had been inspired by an evening spent comforting a heartbroken friend, while songs for female stars, such as "Irreplaceable," which had been a top-ten hit for Beyoncé, were born out of conversations with his mother, sisters, and aunts about a woman's view of life and love.
Though Ne-Yo's music has a twenty-first century style and flavor, he has also been inspired by his predecessors, including Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, and Sammy Davis Jr. As a child, he developed his voice by listening to his mother's albums, especially pop classics such as Jackson's Off the Wall and Stevie Wonder's Hotter Than July. As he began writing his own songs, his goal became to create songs that would become classics themselves.
A well-rounded artist, who values originality and innovation over repeating a successful formula, Ne-Yo has taken risks to expand his career. In 2004, along with Reynell Hay, he helped found Compound Entertainment, an Atlanta, Georgia, based music production company where, besides writing and performing, he has begun learning the technical skills of record production. Along with writing songs and performing on his own albums, Ne-Yo has also made guest appearances on a number of albums, including Ghostface Killah's 2006 Fishscale album. He made his film debut as Mixx in the 2006 David Petrarca movie Save the Last Dance 2, followed in 2007 by a role in Stomp the Yard, directed by Sylvain White.
At a Glance …
Born Shaffer Chimere Smith on October 18, 1982, in Camden, AR; divorced; one son: Chimere.
Career: Singer and songwriter, 2000—.
Awards: Music of Black Origin Awards, Best Song for "Because of You," 2007; Best R&B, 2007; Soul Train Music Awards, Best R&B/Soul or Rap New Artist for "Sexy Love," 2007; Black Entertainment Television Awards, Best R&B Male Artist, 2007.
Addresses: Office—Compound Entertainment, PO Box 93303, Atlanta, GA 30377.
Ne-Yo's dual career of singer and songwriter has exposed him to two different sides of show business. As a songwriter, he has worked behind the scenes, earning success and critical praise, but remaining relatively anonymous. As a performing artist, he has gained fame and recognition but lost much of his privacy. His determination to avoid the superficial values of stardom has made him especially appreciate his behind-the scenes work as part of the Compound Foundation, a branch of Compound Entertainment that helps foster education and entrepreneurship to group homes and schools for at-risk teenagers in Georgia and New Jersey. Besides his show business career, Ne-Yo is a visual artist, a martial arts devotee, and a dedicated father to his young son, Chimere.
In My Own Words, Def Jam Universal, 2006.
Because of You, Def Jam Mercury, 2007.
Save the Last Dance 2, 2006.
Stomp the Yard, 2007.
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Entertainment Weekly, April 27, 2007, p. 139.
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