In a sea of post-Usher up-and-coming young urban contemporary R&B crooners, Ne-Yo took his time developing as a successful songwriter before he released his platinum debut solo record. On his pair of solo albums, In My Own Words and Because of You, Ne-Yo proved that his soothing and sensual vocals were as confident and successful as the hit songs he has written for the likes of Beyoncé, Mario, and Rihanna. Between 2004 and 2007, Ne-Yo wrote six top ten hits for various artists, including himself. Successful in the music business by age 19, the R&B prodigy might not dance like Chris Brown, but the gifted songwriter (who now calls Atlanta home) has industry legends like Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston calling upon his talents.
Born Shaffer Smith in Camden, Arkansas, Ne-Yo was raised by his mother in Las Vegas, Nevada. Inspired and influenced by Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Prince, and songwriters behind the scene like Diane Warren, Ne-Yo claimed that he wrote his first song—about mustard—at the age of five. He grew up in a single-parent household and with the usual urban adolescent struggles, and his mother encouraged him to write things down to vent his frustrations instead of getting into trouble. He began writing in journals, then penned poems, and finally songs.
At 19, Ne-Yo was briefly married for nine months, an admitted mistake on his part. He adopted the moniker Ne-Yo for his solo work as a singer. A play off the character Neo in the movie The Matrix, Ne-Yo the artist isn't cocky about his talent—just confident. "I'm living two lives right now," Ne-Yo said in an interview with Jet's Melody K. Hoffman. "Ne-Yo is the character I created. … the guy onstage, the guy you see on TV. He's the performer, the one that thrives off that attention. Whereas Shaffer C. Smith, my government name, he's calm, he's chill, he's the dude in the studio, and he's more the songwriter side of me. Ne-Yo is 24 [years old], Shaffer is 27."
Ne-Yo's singing ability was never in question, and he signed a deal with Columbia Records around 2002. Just happy to have a recording deal, the young artist allowed Columbia to twist his music into something he wasn't happy about. A record was in the works, but when Ne-Yo fought to write the type of songs he wanted and to be represented the way he wanted to be, the label decided they wouldn't compromise and dropped him off their roster in 2003. The young artist could have given up on music, but shortly after parting with Columbia his career as a songwriter began to flourish. "That Girl," a track Ne-Yo wrote and recorded for his never-released Columbia record was rerecorded by Marques Houston and became a smash when it got on the radio later that year. "That was the song that made me go OK, if people are digging this song, I guess songwriting is what I'm supposed to be doing," Ne-Yo confided to Hoffman. "That was my cue that God wants me to be a songwriter."
Ne-Yo began to pursue songwriting as a career, with singing on the back burner. In 2004 he penned the number one Billboard track "Let Me Love You" for Mario, and worked for other artists while founding the production company Compound Entertainment. Around the same time, the hip-hop moguls at Def Jam signed a recording deal with Ne-Yo the artist. In early 2006, already experienced in the music business at age 23, Ne-Yo released his debut album for Def Jam. Soon, with the singles "Stay" and "So Sick," Ne-Yo was at the top of radio play lists and the album charts. With an infectious lovelorn chorus, Ne-Yo's softer side on "So Sick" brought in millions of fans. The song, like many of his own, was drawn from a real life experience; the first girl he fell in love with at 18, whom he cheated on. "It was the worst absolute pain that I thought I could feel. I disowned my friends, I blamed them and I even blamed her," he confessed to Kevin Clark of HipHopDX.com. "‘So Sick’ was a little therapeutic. You got to keep going and keep it moving." The track stayed in the top three of Billboard's Hot 100 for six consecutive weeks and was nominated for a Best Male Vocal R&B Performance Grammy Award, along with a nomination for Best Contemporary R&B album.
While simultaneously touring to promote his own record and being an in-demand songwriter for other artists, Ne-Yo was also sought out as a guest vocalist on a handful of records by the likes of Ghostface Killah and Remy Ma. In 2006 he had a cameo role in the movie Save the Last Dance 2, and showed true acting skills when he played the role of Rich Brown in the blockbuster film Stomp the Yard the following year. Ne-Yo's strength as an entertainer and businessman couldn't be denied. "R&B music is predominantly for women," Ne-Yo told Hoffman, "but I think that I've learned [that] my place in this whole thing is basically saying things for guys they want to say but don't know how to say." He proved to be more than successful when he had a hand in writing two of the year's biggest hits by female R&B singers, Beyoncé's number one Billboard song "Irreplaceable" and Rihanna's heartbreaking ballad "Unfaithful."
For the Record …
Born Shaffer C. Smith on October 18, 1982, in Camden, Arkansas.
Made name as a songwriter under his birth name, Shaffer Smith, age 19; wrote hit songs sung by Marques Houston and Mario; signed solo recording deal with Columbia Records, but dropped in 2003; signed to Def Jam Recordings, released solo debut In My Own Words, 2006; Because of You appeared in the film Stomp the Yard, 2007.
Addresses: Record company—Def Jam Recordings, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019. Website—Def Jam Official Ne-Yo Website: http://www.defjam.com.
Under a tight schedule and a bit of pressure to deliver the follow-up to In My Own Words, Ne-Yo had built up a strong collection of songs for his sophomore album. "It was very important to show I've grown as a person, as an artist, as a writer," he told Shaheem Reid of MTV.com. "All the different things I've experienced, different cultures … I experienced more [last] year than half my life." In May of 2007, Def Jam released Ne-Yo's second effort, Because of You. The record, which was sexier and more up-tempo than his first, debuted at number one on the Billboard 200. Singles like "Do You" and "Because of You" secured Ne-Yo's spot in the shifting world of popular R&B. "Showing off his wide vocal range … [Ne-Yo] hits us with love, lust and heartbreak," wrote Marie Claire of the album. Ne-Yo kept the album's guest vocalists to a minimum but was almost outshone when he brought in Academy Award-winning singer Jennifer Hudson to duet on "Leaving."
By the end of 2007 Ne-Yo was living in Atlanta, working with his production company and his new studio, Carington House, and penning songs for upcoming albums by Mary J. Blige, Jennifer Hudson, and Whitney Houston. His focus has remained on songwriting, but Ne-Yo also stated that he hopes to do more dramatic acting roles that don't involve singing and dancing. "Songwriting still is and always has been my escape," he confessed to Hoffman. "When I'm writing a song for me, the only person I can be is me. When I'm writing a song for somebody else, I can be whoever I want. It's my own personal escape from reality."
In My Own Words, Def Jam, 2006.
Because of You, Def Jam, 2007.
Billboard, March 24, 2007.
Jet, June 4, 2007.
Marie Claire, May, 2007.
Def Jam Official Website, http://www.defjam.com (September 12, 2007).
"Ne-Yo: The One," HipHopDX.com, http://www.hiphopdx.com/index/features/id.539/title.ne-yo-the-one (September 12, 2007).
"Ne-Yo Stops Scream-ing, Says He's Addicted To Love On Second LP," MTV.com, http://www.mtv.com/news/articles/1550062/200670116/ne_yo.jhtml (September 12, 2007).
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