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.