Six Questions For ... Ne-Yo


So good, he writes hits in his sleep!

Shaffer Smith is one cool cat. He's also one of the hottest figures in R&B.

As a songwriter-for-hire, Smith has penned some monster hits, several of which have reached No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 100: Mario's "Let Me Love You," Beyonce's "Irreplaceable" and Rihanna's "Take a Bow."

As a recording artist, using the name Ne-Yo, he's produced three hit albums in as many years - most recently, "Year of the Gentleman," which has earned the 28-year-old singer with the high, fluid, Michael Jacksonesque tenor the best reviews of his young career. His refreshing atavism has also turned heads - including my own.

What's up with you celebrating female autonomy on "Miss Independent"? Great song, but didn't you get the memo that songs about female anatomy are where it's at in 2008?

(Laughs.) I did get that memo, but I absolutely ignored it. I believe everybody else got that memo too and decided to abide by it. There's a better way to write a song, man. Songs about sex or female anatomy don't have to go that far, as far as being raunchy or just plain nasty. I don't think that's necessary for writing a song. I mean, if that's your way of doing it, fine. You do you, I'm gonna do me. And my way is to celebrate the strength of a woman.

It's easy and obvious to write about a woman's ass and how sexy she is. Okay, we got that; you don't have to have skill to do that. To write about a woman's independence, a woman's strength -- her emotional strength -- I'd rather go there. For the record, I'm always going to try to write the song that evokes some kind of thought.

"Year of the Gentleman" has you singing heartfelt, melody-rich, well-mannered music that recalls a much earlier era, when songs were more than mere ring tones, chivalry wasn't an anachronism, and men not only pulled up their wool slacks, they actually wore them. You sure you're 28 and not, like, 88?

(Laughs.) I've been told more times than not that I have an old soul. My mom told me that all the time. She used to say to me, "It's like you've been here before." It's just the way I look at it. Like, in reference to, say, the era of the Rat Pack: I've always looked at that era as being when the music industry was real, when being an entertainer and a gentleman went hand in hand. Maybe that's the era I was supposed to be born in. I can't do it the way some people do it now. I just can't sag my jeans all the way down to my thighs so that my whole ass is out. I just can't, man.

(More after the jump.)

Your own recordings really seem to speak to women, and you've written some huge hits from a female perspective. How do you relate so well to women?

It might have a lot to do with the fact that I was raised by pretty much all women: In my house, it was my mother, my grandmother, my sister and about five of my aunts until I was about 16. So respect and appreciation for what a woman is was literally pounded into my head.

I won't sit here and say that I completely understand women. They're some of the most complex -- and yet simple -- beings on the planet. But if you take time to do it, to listen to them, it's really not that difficult to figure out what a woman wants. And honestly, what a lot of people don't realize, is that in a lot of cases, men and women think a lot alike. We really do. It's just the perception and action that changes.

Take the song "Irreplaceable." If you, as a man, were dating a woman and were paying for the house she was living in and the car she was driving and the clothes she was wearing and you found out she was cheating, it would be understandable for you to say: "To the left, to the left. Everything you own in the box to the left." But for a man to sing those lyrics, it comes across as misogynistic or mean. For a woman to sing them, it comes across as empowering. It's the same situation on both sides, but it's perceived differently.

Was "Irreplaceable" really intended to be a country song, as Wikipedia suggests?

No, no. It was inspired by country music -- the melodies and whatnot. But it wasn't supposed to be a country song. ... Sugarland sure made it work [on the American Music Awards], though.

You've done really well by teaming up with the Stargate guys on everything from "Irreplaceable" and "Take a Bow" to your own No. 1 hit, "So Sick." How is it that these two dudes from Norway became some of the top hitmakers in American R&B and hip-hop?

I think they mastered the art of simplicity. A lot of producers these days get so caught up on being stars themselves that they overproduce the music; they put so much into it that it leaves no room for the people singing the songs. Whereas these two guys have absolutely no ego about it. They're both trained musicians, and their goal is just to make the best song possible. They know the track doesn't need to have 37 parts. So maybe they put a piano, a guitar and a drum on there and then give it to me and let me write a song over it. It's simple and to the point.

Can I level with you? One thing I don't really like about your popularity is that those suits and fedoras you're wearing these days are really making the rest of us guys look bad. I haven't been this mad at a popular performer since D'Angelo took off his shirt.

(Laughs.) Sorry man! I'm very, very sorry.

By J. Freedom du Lac |  October 15, 2008; 8:30 AM ET Interviews
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