Ne-Yo has long been lauded as one of the industry’s most successful songwriters. Penning female-centric anthems for the likes of Beyoncé (“Irreplaceable”) and Rihanna (“Take A Bow”) the 32-year-old has illustrated his knack for understanding the point of view of the woman. As a solo artist with hit records of his own, the singer has often used the woman as his lyrical muse, whether mourning how she broke his heart (“So Sick”) or celebrating her independence (“Miss Independent”).
With his sixth studio album, Non-Fiction, Ne-Yo continues this musical trend, touring through the highs and lows of being a man with a healthy appetite for chicks. Characterizing the project as a true story inspired by real people and just so happens to be “complete fiction,” Ne-Yo explores the woman, love and sex through various vantage points.
The album’s first track, “Everybody Loves/The Def Of You,” sees Ne-Yo lament on the pains of fame and how it can often unearth women who are less interested in Ne-Yo the man, and more captivated by Ne-Yo the artist, and his access to the good life. “I text her just to chill, no response, Grammy week roll around she texting me like ‘sexy what you doing’ when any other time it’s me pursuing,” he sings. But like any other man, the singer admits, “the sex is so good” and ignores the fact that his lady is actually a gold-digger. The smooth track sounds like the introduction to a Broadway musical inspired by an old black-and-white murder-mystery flick, only in this case the only casualty is the man’s ego.
It’s a slow, yet soulful start to the album, which rides the listener along an impressive musical journey from a woman’s deceit to her addictive desirableness, as is the case on “Run.” The ScHoolboy Q-assisted record warns men of the woman deemed so fine she can place you under her seductive spell and, as a consequence, have you at her beck and call. The hip-hop-leaning track, along with already released singles “She Knows” and “Money Can’t Buy,” certainly aligns with some of Ne-Yo’s more men-friendly catalog. Mannish in lyrical delivery but maintains the melodic authenticity we want from our R&B crooners.
Ne-Yo, however, shines best when he pens songs that empowers the woman rather than critiques her. The album transitions to more of an appreciation for a woman and all that she does. On the cloudy ballad “Integrity,” Ne-Yo pines over his lady, not simply because of her beauty but because of her character. As he sings about going to “the top” with his woman, the listener feels as though they are with Ne-Yo in his heaven-high rendezvous, while also hearing and experiencing the song’s angelic resonance. Its subsequent track “One More” also liberates the woman. Featuring bars from T.I., the song exhibits a hypnotic vibe as Ne-Yo sings in repetition “let me get one more for the lady,” requesting the bartender to give his crush at the bar a much-deserving drink to ease her troubles (“you look like you just got off from work, and if I may assume babe you work but you don’t get what you’re worth”).
But it wouldn’t be an R&B album without songs made for the bedroom. Arguably one of Non-Fiction’s better offerings, “Take You There” sees Ne-Yo school young R&B cats on how to record a love song. Not contrived or cliché, the song oozes passion with rousing lyrics that’ll likely galvanize a love session or two. In many ways, Ne-Yo vocally channels a sexier Michael Jackson as his falsetto is splendidly piercing. “Good Morning” is just as sultry. It’s a tale of wanting to give your lady some morning lovin’ before she leaves the house and goes about her day. Lyrics like “You ‘bout to be late no doubt, I need to hear you scream and shout, I need you to melt in my mouth,” typifies the singer’s ability to make nasty feel and sound so right.
The singer also shows his more humorous side to storytelling, such is the case on “Story Time,” a simple guitar-supported track where he narrates his attempt to convince his lover to acquiesce to a threesome (“She said I can appreciate a pretty face, a nice backside/but just because I might find a girl sexy that does not make me bi…I said yes it does”). On the equally playful “She Said I’m Hood Tho,” Ne-Yo recounts how a rather bold woman manages to captivate him with her blunt honesty (“that song with Pitbull was kind of cool but after you went left, I couldn’t fuck with you”).
But the best song of the album hands down goes to “Religious.” Ne-Yo flexes his musical and lyrical genius on this hip-gospel-inspired track where he praises his woman for her unmatched display of love. “Your voice is something like a choir of angels, easy like Sunday morning,” he croons. “I just throw up both my hands saying thank you to the man, because to be around you is a blessing.” Loud trumpets carry Ne-Yo’s clean vocals, particularly during the song’s bridge, which sounds more like an impassioned testimony. You’re left not knowing whether you want to bob your head or lift your hands in agreement as Ne-Yo sings what’s left of his heart out.
Non-Fiction is by far Ne-Yo’s most captivating album since his 2006 debut. The project showcases the singer’s growth and understanding of how to use his pen and clever melodies to enthrall his listeners. Whether man or woman, he uses storytelling and niche melody arrangement to keep the music lover tuned in. Much like the Smokey Robinson’s and Babyface’s of yesteryear, Ne-Yo possesses the gift of churning out soulful tunes with the perfect recipe for success. While he’s been criticized for venturing into the world of pop (which he lightly sprinkles on the album), Non-Fiction is Ne-Yo’s middle finger to the naysayers. Whether behind a track with dub-step or piano, he maintains his R&B appeal. In many ways the singer musically lives up to his prophetic name. Ne-Yo, derived from “Neo,” is a musical visionary as it relates to new age R&B, and while his music (and the industry) may evolve, the soul is never quite lost.
–Review by Gerren Keith Gaynor