Multiple Grammy-Award winner Ne-Yo is one of the most acclaimed singer/songwriters of his generation. Since the release of his debut album In My Own Words in 2006, Ne-Yo has released numerous multi-platinum albums and singles that have come to define the sound of contemporary R&B. As a songwriter and producer, he’s written classics for other artists, including Beyonce, Rihanna, Mario, and many others
Today, on MLK Day, Ne-Yo will host the Urban One Honors on TV One that celebrates Black excellence in entertainment. The honorees include the iconic music producers and 2021 EBONY Power 100 Lifetime Achievement Award honorees Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, architects of Philly Soul Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff, super-producer Timbaland, gospel star Tasha Cobb, and Oscar and Grammy-winner Jennifer Hudson.
“These artists, these songs are the soundtrack of my Black American experience,“ Ne-Yo said about hosting the gala event.
EBONY caught up with the Grammy-winning artist and 2021 Urban One Honors host discussed his creative process, his new song “Stay Down,” his forthcoming album Self-Explanatory, and how he prepared for hosting his first show.
EBONY: What’s your first music memory?
Ne-Yo: I don’t necessarily have a first music memory because I can’t recall a time when music wasn’t there. Growing up, it was literally always there. I do remember when I knew I wanted to pursue music.
I was growing up in a house full of women and I didn’t have anybody to bounce these ideas and thoughts I was having off—so my mom gave me a red notebook with a pen and told me to start writing. So it went from journal entries to poetry because right around this time, I started to realize how much I liked girls but I was not brave enough to talk to them.
One day, I decided to take one of these poems and just put a melody to it. That was the moment when it connected for me and I said, “I can write songs like the ones I hear on the radio.” So at nine, ten years old, that’s when the real therapy happened because from there it became real for me.
Speaking of songwriting, your latest track “Stay Down” is another classic Ne-Yo bop. Tell us about creating the song and connecting with Young Bleu?
I wrote two songs about the same thing and I didn’t want to get rid of either one of them. Since I didn’t need both of them on an album individually, I wanted to try something new that was very much inspired by the record that Drake and Future did where it starts with Drake and it changes when it comes to Future’s part. If they can do it in hip hop, I should be able to do it in R&B. I gave it a try and it worked. The song is about that person that’s going to be there for you regardless of what happens and I’m blessed to have that.
I’ve been checking Young Bleu for a while now. I felt like I needed somebody that I felt was gonna still be around and be doing something major with the next generation. A few names came up but his name was one of the ones that stood out. So we sent him the track, he laid his verse down, and it was what we needed; the rest is history.
You’ve made the seamless transition from being a new kid on the scene to an established veteran with every accolade one could ask for, and you’re still evolving as a musician. How has this part of your journey been?
I feel that everything happens for a reason and you’re supposed to learn from your experiences. When you learn from it, you don’t have to repeat them. It’s been a journey worthy of a movie script and I wouldn’t change a thing. I wouldn’t take anything back. I’m saying this because I’m at a place now at 42 years old where I’m happy and content. I have a new album coming out in March called Self-Explanatory and I’m at a place now where if this album goes triple wood, I’m okay. Everyone in my family is good and that’s through the grace of God and what God’s allowed to happen through music for me. Now, I can make the music I want to make and I can have fun and enjoy it as opposed to hoping and praying that I sell a million records. It’s about doing music that feeds your soul.
Over the years, you’ve grown accustomed to being asked to perform on various stages but how did you feel when you first got the call to host TV One’s Urban One Honors?
I don’t know what phone calls and conversations happened before but I got a call from my management and they said, “Hey, Urban One Honors is coming back around and TV One was wondering if you’d be interested in hosting.” I said, “Are you sure they want me? Do they know, I never hosted an event before? They’re aware of that, right?” My team said, “Yeah, they want to know if you’re willing to do it.” I was like, “Yeah, sure. I’ll give it a try.” So I instantly started researching people who have hosted shows where I appreciated what they did. I love Kevin Hart as a host because he always keeps it fun and keeps things moving. I love Jamie Foxx as a host because he’s always funny, but it’s conversational and it feels organic.
I started rehearsing, trying to get it all right, and getting my jokes together. Then, they told me, “By the way, there’s not going to be an audience.” I said, “Oh, okay. All right.” So, I changed my whole style up but at the same time, I knew why I was there. The weight of why I was there, the people being honored are absolutely deserving and worthy of these honors. I just had to make sure that the night went right for them and that’s what I did.
Timbaland, Tasha Cobb, and Jennifer Hudson, who you previously worked with, are all tremendous artists. As a songwriter and producer, you come from the lineage of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff and Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis. How special was it for you when you discovered they were among the honorees?
That was kind of a full-circle moment for me. I grew up and was influenced by the music that Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were producing and even further back than that, the music of Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff created played an integral part in me becoming who I am as an artist and as a man. So for me now to be standing on the stage paying homage to them and to see them receive their flowers in the right way was personal for me. It felt amazing to host an award show for them, you know what I mean? This is something I will never forget.
Lastly, the theme of Urban One Honors is “The Soundtrack of Black America.” What does that mean to you?
“The Soundtrack of Black America” just struck me as the kind of music that left a mark on you as a Black person in America. For me, that was the music that my mom used to clean the house too. So every Sunday, you know, definitely some Gamble and Huff, Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis were a part of my soundtrack. I can definitely say that each of these honorees are on the soundtrack of my Black experience.
Urban One Honors, “The Soundtrack of Black America,” will air on January 17 on Martin Luther King Jr. Day at 8 p.m.