Less than a year ago, Ne-Yo was a name familiar to those who pay attention to album credits and wanted to know who it was who wrote Mario’s smash “Let Me Love You” or Youngstown’s “Let’s Roll.”
To say things are different now is a considerable understatement.
The R&B triple-threat (performer, producer, songwriter) has a platinum album of his own, “In My Own Words,” as well as a No. 1 hit, “So Sick” and two Grammy Award nominations, for Best Contemporary R&B Album and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance. He also has a co-starring role in “Stomp the Yard.”
And he’s still working for others. Ne-Yo also co-wrote Beyoncé Knowles’ latest charttopper, “Irreplaceable,” as well as the politically charged “Minority Report” for her boyfriend Jay-Z’s new album, “Kingdom Come.”
“It’s been a roller coaster, I will say that,” says Ne-Yo, 24, who was born Shaffer Chimere Smith in Arkansas and raised in Las Vegas before moving to Los Angeles after he graduated high school to pursue his music career. He took his performing name from Neo, the hero in the “Matrix” fi lm trilogy.
“It’s absolutely apples and oranges from the way it was before. Being behind the scenes, you can write a No. 1 hit for somebody, have as much if not more money than the artists, and you still have to stand in the long line outside the clubs like anybody else.
“Whereas if you’re the artist whose album does so-so but you have a little bit of TV time, a little bit of face time, all of a sudden doors just open up for you. It’s a trip, man.”
Ne-Yo’s musical journey started as a child, thanks to a mother who’s “been an R&B/soul fan forever. She was the kind of woman who did everything to music — cooking, cleaning, whatever. The stereo was always on. I developed a love for it naturally. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.”
He didn’t have to wait long. He actually recorded an album when he was 16 years old, but the record company chose at the time not to release it — which was just fi ne with Ne-Yo.
“That was Shaffer,” he says now. “That was a whole other person.” Instead he concentrated on making his mark as a writer, starting with Terrance Quites 1999 hit “Westside” and continuing with tracks for Tyrese, Marques Houston, Christina Milian, B2K and others.
“If at all possible, I like there to be some kind of conversation with the artists I’m writing for,” says Ne-Yo, whose other recent credits include tracks for Snoop Dogg, Chris Brown and Paula DeAnda. “That makes my job easier. But scheduling doesn’t allow that to happen most of the time. Then you just have to do the best interpretation of what you think that artist would say.”
And, Ne-Yo adds, discretion is sometimes the most advisable course.
“I know my limitations,” he says. “I know that with another person, I’ve got to play it safe. For myself, I try to push the envelope a little bit more, lyrically. I say something a different way than I would for somebody else.”
So while he wrote “Irreplaceable” “for anybody, to tell you the truth, not specifi - cally for (Beyoncé),” a song like “So Sick” cuts considerably closer to the bone, remembering his first love — and the end of their relationship.
“I was very young at the time,” he recalls, “and my friends’ opinions were more important to me than a lot of things. To prove a point to my friends, I ended up cheating on the girl I was madly in love with, and she ended up leaving me.
“That was the most pain I had felt in my 18 years to that point. It’s crazy that something beautiful came out of something so painful, but it did give me a sense of closure.”
Kind of. Ne-Yo is planning a sequel to “So Sick” on his next album — “It’ll get into exactly what I wanted to say to her,” he says — which he hopes to release in the spring with a new single out as early as February.
“I’m a good 30-40 songs in already,” Ne-Yo reports, adding that there’s “still no real true direction to what it is I’m doing — just making music, going in, doing whatever it is I feel like at the time.
“That’s pretty much how the first one came about; it wasn’t ’til halfway through (‘In My Own Words’) that I realized I wanted to do a traditional R&B album. So we’ll see what directions my subconscious takes me in this time.”
While he’s waiting for that, Ne-Yo will also be seen on the big screen in “Stomp the Yard,” a musical drama about street dancing that also features fellow singer Chris Brown and opens on Jan. 12.
“I won’t sit up here and try to call myself an actor,” Ne-Yo says. “I wouldn’t disrespect actual actors by trying to say I’m one. But I saw an advance screening of the film and think I did pretty good, so who knows what that can lead to, y’know?”
Scream Tour 5, featuring Ne-Yo, Omarion, Pretty Ricky, Mario, Young Joc, Jibbs, Sammie and One Chance, takes place at 7 p.m. Tuesday (Dec. 26) at Joe Louis Arena, 600 Civic Center Drive, Detroit. Tickets are $49.75, $39.75 and $25.75. Call (313) 471-6611 or visit www. olympiaentertainment.com.
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