NE-YO’S fifth album, a certain hit when it is released next month, is called R.E.D., which stands for Realising Every Dream. That’s not an ambition, he tells me with the characteristic humility of a major American R&B singer, but a fact.
“Initially my biggest dream was just to do music for the rest of my life. That was when I fell in love with songwriting at age nine,” he says. “Then it was a dream to be able to do this well enough to travel the world doing it. Possibly winning a Grammy one day, collaborating with the people I looked up to — all those dreams have been realised, check, check, check, going down the line.”
In truth, though he operates in the high-gloss world of aspirational urban music, where modesty is the enemy, the man born Shaffer Smith 29 years ago in Arkansas has much for which to congratulate himself. Last month he landed his fourth UK No 1 single with the energetic pop song Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself) — his fifth if you count a guest apearance on Pitbull’s Give Me Everything last year. His first three albums were platinum hits in his homeland and his three Grammys to date came in 2008 and 2009.
So I’m expecting all the clichés of the big American star interview when I go to see him in a large meeting room at the Langham Hotel near Oxford Circus — an entourage the size of a football squad, the tardiness of someone still on US time and a lazy, publicist-policed conversation during which the subject stares at his BlackBerry throughout. Instead, as you might expect from someone with his own range of fedoras (the Francis Ellargo collection, now in Saks Fifth Avenue), he proves to be quite the gentleman.
The only starry moment comes when, even though I have arrived first, I’m told to leave again and stand in the corridor while his people (numbering five, of indeterminate roles) settle their master on the large sofa and acquire fresh mint tea. Two women sit at the far end of the room throughout the interview and appear to be asleep, which I take as a sign that I’m doing a brilliant job. The star is all smiles, about to catch a plane home to attend his son Mason’s first birthday party.
“My love for music has evolved,” says the man a fellow musician christened Ne-Yo because he supposedly sees music as Keanu Reeves’s character Neo sees The Matrix — in the sci-fi fantasy film, Neo can bend and shape events because he can visualise the computer code that controls his world.
“Before, music to me was therapy, a means of maintaining my own mental stability when the world gets a little hectic. Now it’s more than just something I enjoy doing because it’s helping me support my kids.”
His daughter Madilyn is almost three and enjoys spotting Daddy on the television. “There are a million other things with regard to my career that I could be doing, but I dare you to put something in the schedule on my kids’ birthdays.”
Ne-Yo was raised single-handedly by his mother, who managed a bank in Las Vegas during his childhood. The experience has made him more determined to be a committed dad. “At one point I held a lot of animosity towards my father because he wasn’t there. There were gaps of years when I didn’t see him. He was almost a stranger. I never want my kids to feel what I felt in regard to him.”
Growing up in Sin City made him confident, at least. “Vegas is not a place where people stay long. Every school year I would have to start out with new people. I never kept a group of friends. But that was somewhat beneficial because it makes you a people person.”
He has opted to raise his children with his fiancée Monyetta Shaw in Atlanta, Georgia “because it’s not as city as LA but not as country as Arkansas. It rides the line perfectly”.
Despite his sickeningly good looks, a sweet high voice reminiscent of Michael Jackson’s, and a songwriting talent that has seen him composing for Rihanna, Beyoncé, Celine Dion and Jackson himself, his has not been a completely easy ride. A first record deal with Columbia in 2000 did not result in an album and it was only after he’d joined Def Jam that he had his first hit, with the pretty break-up ballad So Sick, in 2006.
He’s releasing R.E.D. on another new label, the reactivated Motown Records, after a fourth album that even he admits was a flop. Although Libra Scale, in 2010, produced a UK No 1 single in Beautiful Monster, it sold around a fifth as well as its predecessors and suffered from being a confusing concept album about three superhero bin men who can never fall in love.
Ne-Yo says it was a case of excessive ambition rather than laziness leading to inferior songs. He spent so long writing a film script for the album and then planning multiple extended videos that time and budget constraints meant he was unable to realise his vision fully. “So many things went wrong,” he admits. “I didn’t pay as much attention to the music as I should have. It was my first attempt at screenplay, scriptwriting and video direction and I was learning as I went along. In the process we had to cut corners.”
Now he’s making a fresh start with hits in mind. The new album has something for fans old and new, with traditional smoochy R&B and the frantic Europop that currently dominates the charts both making appearances. “It’s being attached to the music enough to do what you love, but on the other side of the same card, acknowledging the wants of the people you need to buy the record.”
The new attachment to the Motown brand helps to place him in a long line of pop greats, a situation he admits is unnerving.
“The intimidation factor is definitely there. For me to come in and sit on a chair where Smokey Robinson sat … the pressure is on.”
But he’s used to the demands of legendary figures. He wrote about 10 songs for Michael Jackson, which Jackson had been planning to record after the 2009 string of concerts at the O2 that never happened. “There’s definitely some disappointment there, but God’s plan is not for us to understand. He needed Mike close to him for some reason — a reason that’s beyond me.”
His attitude to that material, which has still not seen the light of day, is admirable. “Someone suggested a tribute album with all the proceeds going to a charity. It would have to be something like that. I could never give them to another artist, that would be wrong. And I would never want anybody to think I was trying to make money off Mike’s death.”
In any case, there are plenty more hits of his own where they came from. “I used to be proud of how many songs I could get done in one session. Now, instead of trying to do as much as humanly possible, I’m trying to do something great.”
The occasional setback has only made him determined to work harder to realise those dreams.
R.E.D. is released on Nov 5 on Mercury.