With 10 years as one of R&B’s most tender tenors, Ne-Yo has never been a strip club staple. Sure, the 32-year-old singer loves the shake joint just as much as the next warm-blooded man residing in Atlanta, but his chivalrous jams traditionally haven’t been fit for the gentlemen’s club. So imagine his delight when he strolled into one his of favorite ATL nightspots and heard his pole dance-ready turn-up “She Knows” (featuring Juicy J) blaring through the smoky air and flashing lights.
“It was exactly the way I imagined it,” the Vegas native recalls. “The club turned up, girls started dancing even harder. It’s one of those moments where you go, ‘Yeah, that’s what this is supposed to be.’ ”
But don’t think Ne-Yo is swapping romance for rainmakers. “She Knows” is simply a solitary chapter of his upcoming Non-Fiction, a narrative album comprised of his own love stories plus those of his fans slyly woven in. Yet every one of the 14 tracks is supposedly steeped in reality. “My thing is to keep it as relatable as possible,” Ne-Yo says of his sixth studio album, which lives up to his sterling penmanship bar. “I gotta be honest about stuff that it’s painful to be honest about, the little things… This is the rebirth of storytelling.”
EBONY: Non-Fiction is comprised of your own personal stories intertwined with those of your fans. Where’d you get the idea to construct the album that way?
Ne-Yo: I was kinda searching around for a title, for a theme—that’s always the most difficult part for me. Normally you go in the booth and just go where the creative vibe takes you and figure out how to glue it all together. I knew I wanted to tell aspects of my story, but do something special for my fans too. I reached out via social media, asking people questions about their lives and their relationships. I wrote songs about the stories that I really dug. So half of this album is 100 percent true stories given to me by fans, as well as my own 100 percent true stories.
EBONY: How did you know which stories would make good fodder for songs?
Ne-Yo: You kinda don’t know what’s going to make a good song. You’ve got to shoot around in the dark for a little while. Some really interesting stuff came through—some made for good songs, some didn’t. But my thing is to keep it as relatable as possible. This is the rebirth of storytelling, allowing people to find themselves in these stories. The album itself tells a story familiar to men and women: What do you really want?
EBONY: So many people don’t truly know.
Ne-Yo: A man will talk all day about the woman he wants, but should he come across that woman, he’ll do something stupid like cheat on her with the kind of woman he was trying to get away from in the first place. It’s not a lot of second chances granted in the realm of that. So you might want to figure out exactly what you want before you break somebody’s heart or get your own heart broken.
EBONY: On “She Said I’m Hood Tho,” you talk about a noncelebrity woman who questions why you’d be interested in her rather than a celebutante.
Ne-Yo: Yeah, that used to be something I’d get a lot from girls. I’ve never been the guy to go for the celebrity girl. I’ve always liked regular girls, regular people, because I’ve always viewed myself as a regular person who just happens to be gifted in music. Most times I’ll get, “You can have an actress, a model. What the hell you want from me? I work over here at the nail shop.” But just because I can get anything I want doesn’t mean I want that.
EBONY: Were there any stories that you came across that you thought would make a great song, but then just didn’t translate musically?
Ne-Yo: Yeah, there’s a few that happened like that. Stuff I thought would translate in song form but just didn’t. That happens all the time. Even though it’s noble to tell the truth, some truths just don’t sing very well. [laughs] When I started going through songs about the breakup and songs about the mother of my kids and how that whole thing went down, I wanted to make it a bit more vague. But certain aspects of the relationship just didn’t sing well.
EBONY: There are some recurring characters on Non-Fiction. What’s the rundown on Tammy, Integrity and Temptation?
Ne-Yo: There are three women that represent the types of women the main character comes across. Tammy Vanity, the first girl, represents that chick that’s super pretty. She’s beautiful, the body is crazy, but she’s got a bit of a track record. She’s been around the block—everybody knows it, you know it, celebrity cats been there too. She’s that girl, the kind you settle for. You feel like the good girls are nowhere to be found, so you find good enough. Wifey material—she’s just not that.
Then you meet Integrity Jones. Integrity is the one you always said you wanted. If she has a track record, it’s exceptionally shorter than the average girl. She actually has goals, drive. She’s not trying to do the career stripper thing. There’s more to life with her. She’s everything that these other chicks are not.
But then, us being men and the dumb stuff that we do, we come across Temptation. Temptation is just that—she’s the girl you claim you don’t want, but in the moment you have more drinks than you should in the club. One thing leads to another and suddenly you’ve done something really stupid. You’ve jeopardized what could’ve potentially been a really great relationship, all due to temptation. Those three women run the gamut of this whole story.
EBONY: An unfortunate news story unrelated to Non-Fiction reported that a woman in the U.K. experiences seizures every time she hears your voice and music. How’d you feel when you heard about that?
Ne-Yo: I thought it was kind of sad. What do you say to something like that? I’m sorry that your condition is what it is, but it’s really nothing I can do about it. My voice is my voice, I can’t change it. I read an article where she said, “I like his music. His music just doesn’t like me.” I was like, “Damn, that’s some sad shit.” My heart goes out to her and her whole family. By all means, if my music is doing that to you, turn it off, for real. I ain’t even going to fault you for it. Turn it off.
EBONY: I’m sure there was an entirely different reaction the first time you were in a strip club and “She Knows” dropped.
Ne-Yo: The first time I heard “She Knows” in the strip club, it was exactly the way I imagined it. I was in either D.O.A. or Magic City. I walked in, they saw that I was there and played some of my older stuff. I’ve heard my older stuff in strip clubs before, but I’ve never done a song that I felt was a “strip-club song.” That’s why I dug this one, because I felt this probably would get played even if I wasn’t there. I could see one of my favorite strippers dancing to this. At this point, “She Knows” had picked up in Atlanta, so people know the record. They hit “She Knows” and the club turned up! The girls started dancing even harder. It’s one of those moments where you go, “Yeah, that’s what this is supposed to be.”
EBONY: You’ve also generally steered away from the misogynistic R&B that’s becoming the norm. Why do you think songs like Chris Brown’s “Loyal” are so popular?
Ne-Yo: Aside from them being quality songs with catchy lyrics, I think it’s a message that kind of rings true with a lot of men and women today. The whole concept of “these hoes ain’t loyal” is pretty basic. Of course they’re not, they’re hoes, they’re not supposed to be. Hoes are loyal to money. But it was cool for Chris and [songwriter] Ty Dolla $ign to put the magnifying glass on that fact. People knew it already, but the song comes out and you go, “Yup, damn right!”
I definitely feel like there’s a lot of misogynist messaging in R&B today, which I’m not dissing. I think there’s room for all of it. But we have to address all of it. It can’t just be a bunch of the same. Every song can’t be talking about those chicks that might not be loyal or might do something foul. Every song can’t be “fu*k me, fu*k me, fu*k me.” We need the make-love songs, too. That’s what’s going to help the genre flourish, the diversity.
EBONY: Do you sometimes feel the responsibility to bring that balance?
Ne-Yo: I definitely do. It’s a responsibility I welcome. I come from an older school of R&B when that’s what R&B was. I came up in the days of Boyz II Men, Jodeci. Them cats were wearing damn face masks and machetes at award shows, but then talking about, “Do you believe in love and the promise that it gives?” They was doing love songs still. [Sings Jodeci’s “Cry for You.”] That’s real. They were still doing love songs because that was the root and tradition of R&B. That’s needed. It’s cool to venture out and try new things and apply new elements, but the stuff that made it good in the first place can’t get tossed by the wayside. That’s part of my job, to make sure that it doesn’t.
John Kennedy is a writer, editor and tortured Knicks fan who represents Queens, but stays out in Brooklyn. He’s written for Vibe, Billboard and XXL. Tweet him at @youngJFK. (Nas slander will get you blocked.)