No. 1: Ne-Yo, “Year Of The Gentleman”

Dec 31st, 2008 // 32 Comments

The title piqued my interest. Well, I figured, he’s going ahead and making it explicit: “grown and sexy,” that restrained-allure masterwork of recent phrasemaking, and the title of the 2005 album by Babyface (to whom we’ll return), would be the outright theme of Ne-Yo’s third album. I figured I’d like it. He’d been a great singles guy but I never got all the way into the first two albums, but maybe I would with this one. I hadn’t thought much about “Closer” either way, but my hunch demanded I buy the album day of release. I played it five times and wrote an enthusiastic review while still not convinced I’d heard all there was to hear. Then I really started listening.

I’d put my love for Year of the Gentleman down to craft if that didn’t sound so mere, so bloodless. Ne-Yo is a classic backroom guy—he wrote “Irreplaceable” for Beyoncé, for starters—but his best work still pulses with more thought and melodic lushness than anyone else’s, and on this album he really bears down. The sequencing is immaculate: first five songs all hits or will be, the rest going deeper and more specifically into his subject, relationships, and ending with a goopy little happy ending that still gets to me, though not as much as the stuff before it. It’s grown and sexy because Ne-Yo sounds like an actual grown-up—someone who’s thought about what relationships mean, how they work, what goes wrong with them, and just which angle he might take on it for his next song.

It’s the angles that kept me hooked. “So You Can Cry” is as much about being infuriated by your best friend as you are empathetic to her plight; “Fade into the Background” about watching the one who got away getting hitched, and getting drunk and slinking away in response. He plays the nice guy to the hilt, which means he sings about frustration a lot, as with “Mad,” which is as much about just wanting to get a good night’s sleep as it is about wanting to put things right with your s.o.

As someone who’s spent most of 2008 in a long-distance relationship, those kinds of frustrations are on my mind a lot, and Ne-Yo spoke to them with more grace and empathy than anybody else. Alfred Soto puts it better than I can: “His wordplay isn’t particularly clever, but he’s mastered a way of adapting a shopworn phrase so that it illuminates an unpredictable situation—the situations in which all lovers convince themselves that no one else has been in them . . . He avoids bathos by virtue of the unstinting precision of his singing and writing.”

As long as I’m quoting people, let me point to something Tom Ewing recently wrote: “[T]he state of pop criticism in the mainstream doesn’t generally go further than ‘Are there kewl sounds on this record Y/N’—which is why stuff like pop-country and non-futuristic R&B (Ne-Yo, Jazmine Sullivan) gets a rough deal.” As much as anything beyond the idea that Ne-Yo’s melisma gets in his songs’ way (he uses it less, and more effectively, than many of his peers), Year of the Gentleman’s production is often cited as a reason for dismissing it, as if its lack of groundbreaking qualities thereby disqualifies it for greatness or even goodness. I’ll be sure to remember that the next time I’m recommended a shitty indie rock (or rap) album that breaks no ground by definition.

Anyway, the real rub tends to be that Ne-Yo’s persona isn’t sufficient. Basically, he’s Babyface with a far heavier jones for early-’70s singer-songwriter tricks. (“So You Can Cry” is clearly the product of someone who listens to plenty of Paul Simon and Joni Mitchell and especially Carly Simon—surely “pity party” rhymed with “calamari” is his version of “yacht”/“apricot”/“gavotte.”) If you’re allergic to either tendency, it’s probably useless to convince you otherwise. But really, you’re missing out. Of course Ne-Yo is a showbiz kid—he’s from Vegas, for Christ’s sake. But he’s not just hitting his marks. He’s a craftsman because he gets such an obvious buzz from turning the lyric and the tune just right. He’s a hit machine who feels every note, and can make you feel them. That’s what all that craft is for. No one in 2008 utilized it better.

Year of the Gentleman [official site]
Closer [Dailymotion]
Mad [OnSmash]
Miss Independent [Dailymotion]
80 ’08 (and heartbreak)

idolator

  1. Guy_Whitey_Corngood

    ugh, Idolator, stop trying to make Ne-Yo happen!

  2. Al Shipley

    Ne-Yo was pretty much my favorite artist of the year too, but the album really wasn’t the reason; it mostly came down to the singles, the NKOTB version of “Single,” and various other features. The title certainly was prophetic, though, there were a shitload of good albums by dapper suit-wearing R&B singers in 2008 (Robin Thicke, Raphael Saadiq, John Legend, etc.).

  3. Rob Murphy

    Huzzah. Every word in this post is true.

    Also, I just want to tell everyone I can that Ne-Yo also wrote the following song, which I thought was the best R&B track of the aughts until Year Of The Gentleman came out:

  4. Anonymous

    I don’t know if Ne-Yo has that whip appeal or not.

  5. Dickdogfood

    @Guy_Whitey_Corngood: Isn’t there an Animal Collective leak somewhere you could be downloading instead of being here?

  6. RaptorAvatar

    I keep meaning to hear this thing but they seem to be policing mediafire/megaupload pretty tightly. Hopefully I’ll have better luck this afternoon, cause this thing sounds awesome.

  7. mackro

    I heard you can get both Animal Collective *and* Ne-Yo leaks if you turn on your Zune only today, Dec 31st!

  8. silkyjumbo

    @Guy_Whitey_Corngood: i totally agree. and, no, Dickdogfood, i wasn’t hoping for some hipper-than-thou selection – it just feels like almost everyone on idolator drank the ne-yo kool-aid.

  9. Jess Harvell

    for what its worth, i remain unconvinced re. this pleasant but unexceptional album and dude appeared in my 2007 top ten.

  10. Jess Harvell

    but as someone with a longtime weakness for “hella emo plus craft chops” in a variety of musical settings, i understand why the two architects of this list are overrating it.

  11. Anonymous

    I listened to this record because everyone at Idolator was rating it so highly…I’m not going to dispute it’s craft. Maybe it’s just not what I want out of R&B. I like throwback R&B, and future-funk R&B. I don’t hear any risk-taking in Ne-Yo, and the hooks don’t grab me.

    Then again, Fleet Foxes was my ’08 #1, which y’all here dissed. And that record was all well-crafted, low risk songs. So maybe we’re all being hypocrites.

  12. Poubelle

    @silkyjumbo: But that kool-aid tastes so good!

    I probably wouldn’t have gone much deeper than the singles (“Closer” took about one listen to become one of my favorite tracks this year) if this site hadn’t had so much love for the album. But I’ve enjoyed it enough that I definitely don’t regret getting the whole thing. I’ve only listened to it all the way through a few times so far, but I get the sense that I’m going to find more in it as I listen to it more. Which is typically what I want to get out of an album.

    And honestly, Ne-Yo’s not the kind of artist who I would’ve listened to that much without some prompting. So I’m glad that Idolator showed me that there was more than just repeating “Closer” over and over (not that I regret doing that for about a month).

  13. Anonymous

    You guys are wonderful for pushing this. “Mad”, in particular, is absolutely amazing.

  14. Kate Richardson

    Weeeellll I (kind of) work here and I honestly didn’t realize until just now when I hit play on that first embedded video that the vaguely annoying song my roommates had been blasting in the living room the past few months was this Ne-Yo that I hear so much about around here. Something about that song reminds me of anxiety nightmares. I don’t know why! It’s just a weird thing.

    I think he’s a handsome fellow and I believe every bit of the hype I hear about his live performances because he comes off as extremely charismatic, but I can assure that I have not sipped the kool-aid.

    @DrOrpheus: I agree with the thing you said about R&B. Not that I’ve bothered to listen to the album, but from what I’ve heard I’m just like…eh.

    But then again I’m an R&B philistine and I think I have a pretty bad ear for it, so I’m sure there’s a lot of things going on in his songs that I’m just not equipped to appreciate. And that being said my personal opinion is that the best thing he’s done to my knowledge is writing “Irreplaceable” for Beyonce

  15. Rock You Like An Iracane

    @Rob Murphy: That song is INCREDIBLE.

  16. Rock You Like An Iracane

    Also, Ne-Yo is probably the greatest writer/songwriter working in pop music today. His songs are pieced together perfectly like Austen observations, brilliant bits of pathos buttressed by the truth he grounds them in.

    And he did this, which makes me laugh:

    A VIDEO to a honest-to-goodness rap/sung remix of “A Milli” that is better than 85% of the ones that came out, with the line: “I ain’t lyin’/Man, your girlfriend/Favorite song is mine.” Which is awesome.

  17. Anonymous

    Just want to echo the other commenters who are saluting Maura for pushing this one. We can get Fleet Foxes anywhere else.

    Hope things look up for you in the new year, Maura.

  18. Guy_Whitey_Corngood

    @Rock You Like An Iracane: Okay, this is pretty awesome.

  19. Maura Johnston

    @Rock You Like An Iracane: Yes! Everything about that cover made me so happy.

  20. Rock You Like An Iracane

    @Maura Johnston: I can’t really tell you how few of the million “Milli” versions I heard would rank above that, but it’s probably no more than Jay’s, Loso’s, and maybe Cory Gunz (who owns the deed to the beat for obliterating it twice).

    And Ne-Yo’s a singer.

  21. Rob Murphy

    @Rock You Like An Iracane: Agreed. INCREDIBLE!

    @Kate Richardson: Also, if you haven’t heard the embed of “Let Me Love You” yet, or recently, please take 4 1/2 minutes of your life to do so.

    I didn’t learn this was a Ne-Yo-written track until like a month ago, but now that I know, I can hear Ne-Yo’s style all over it.

    Thought experiment: What if Ne-Yo had no designs on being an artist in his own right, and simply was content to stay behind the scenes. What would Year Of The Gentleman sound like if it were a Mario album? Think to yourself, or out loud.

    Also “Let Me Love You” came before Ne-Yo started working with Stargate. This is a Scott Storch joint. Let the jokes begin.

  22. Kate Richardson

    @Rob Murphy: Ok I did it in the interest of not being such a chump. I like it better than the Ne-Yo singles . I especially like the little oboe sound effect thing or whatever that is going on in the background.

    Still I think I just have sort of a blind spot for this strain of R&B. It doesn’t really strike me particularly.

  23. Rock You Like An Iracane

    @Rob Murphy: I don’t even care who made that beat, itself all pretty and nice and mellow; Scott Storch did good work for The Roots before his Tuff Jew days.

    And, yeah, I learned that it was Ne-Yo long after I heard that song first, but I loved it on first listen and still do. But then, I jumped on the Ne-Yo Radio Flyer back in the “So Sick” days (another song I loved when I first heard it), bought that first album and his second, and have really enjoyed his career.

    My favorite bit of Ne-Yo’s oeuvre: he wrote “Unfaithful,” which is far, far, FAR more feminine and feminized than “Irreplaceable.” But, as written by Shaffer Smith, it’s still spot-on for what it should be. Incredible.

  24. Rock You Like An Iracane

    @Rob Murphy: What would Usher sound like with Ne-Yo writing?

    A Kanye/Ne-Yo album has long been a wish of mine.

  25. Rob Murphy

    @Kate Richardson: @Rock You Like An Iracane: Agreed, loved this track from the first time I ever heard it. When I used to DJ, I played it as my last call song.

    @Rob Murphy: Thought experiment: What if Ne-Yo had no designs on being an artist in his own right, and simply was content to stay behind the scenes. What would Year Of The Gentleman sound like if it were a Mario album? Think to yourself, or out loud.

    @Rock You Like An Iracane: What would Usher sound like with Ne-Yo writing?

    While I don’t have answers to those questions, we may get some clues about what this album might have sounded like if it had been a Mario album. If Wikipedia is correct — and when has Wikipedia EVER been wrong??? — Stargate will be all over Mario’s planned-for-2009 album, And Then There Was Me:

    [en.wikipedia.org]

    Bonus: Stargate looks to be part of planned-for-2009 releases from R. Kelly, Backstreet Boys, Monica, JT, Rihanna, Mary J. Blige and, among others…LeToya Luckett(!!!)

    [en.wikipedia.org]

  26. Lucas Jensen

    I’m begrudgingly coming around (or perhaps getting used to it?), but it still sounds pretty whiny and sappy to me, and I think I shouldn’t have to listen to something 10 times to “get it.” I might be with Jess and Kate on this one.

    And I’m someone who also doesn’t like whiny or sappy indie rock (Death Cab, Bright Eyes, etc.), so, no, I wouldn’t like it better if it was emo or whatevs.

  27. Maura Johnston

    @slowburn: hey, i pushed it too :)

  28. mackro

    idolator still alive in the oh-nine-eyo

  29. Anonymous

    Ne-yo “avoids bathos” only by the fact that the lyrics are intended to be heard sung, rather than read, which masks their utter banality. And “So you can cry” isn’t about being “as much infuriated … as empathetic”– there’s no empathy in that song, just frustration (and no compassion). I like ne-yo fine, and he’s a great melodist (sometimes), and a “craftsman” (as somebody noted above, damning with faint praise), but please, as somebody else pointed out recently, maybe even on this site, this is the year of the empty lyric in the elaborately beautiful setting, and ne-yo is its exemplar.

  30. Anonymous

    @slowburn: Oops, sorry, Matos!! Thank you for pushing this…and for writing so many great posts this year ;-)

  31. Ned Raggett

    I would have had more to say about the last few days of posts counting things down and today’s stellar run in particular if besides a huge writing project I was polishing off before a deadline I wasn’t suffering from what I am convinced is A FUCKING SINUS INFECTION FROM HELL.

    Sorry, projecting. Point being, great job everyone. Get off the computer and get together with friends. (Which I’m about to do here in half an hour.)

  32. Michaelangelo Matos

    @kabosh: You’re ignoring the bridge, which is both empathetic and plainspoken.

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