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?
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’
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.