Because of You
Island Def Jam
e-Yo’s a traditionalist, alright: like many of his R&B; forebears, he has proven incapable of recording an album’s worth of material. There’s no noticeable advance on last year’s In My Own Words: we get 12 songs, most just over four minutes, no interludes. What have advanced are our expectations. It’s not every artist who can boast that a song donated to Beyoncé (doctored by her team of creative consultants) would hold the Number One position for most of the winter. What risks Because of You takes reflects Ne-Yo’s new pedigree: a duet with the current winner of the Best Supporting Actress Oscar and leading with a single that sounds exactly like “So Sick” and “Sexy Love.” What’s clout for if you’re not going to take a risk?
For a performer who fetishizes singer/songwriting to such an extraordinary degree (remember the picture of a spiral notebook filled with immortal jottings included in In My Own Words?), it’s curious that Ne-Yo’s most successful production team sticks to sounds we last heard on Millenium-era Backstreet Boys. Norwegian duo Stargate decorate Ne-Yo’s inoffensive tenor with the usual pizzicatos, synthesized harps, and thwacking percussion programs on first single “Because of You,” a dead ringer, as usual, for Michael Jackson’s “Human Nature.” Thank Eros that Ne-Yo himself gets bored with this Keatsian contemplation of the beloved; why contemplate when you can fuck, then contemplate? (“Show Me the Meaning of Being Lonely” was ironic succor worthy of Green Gartside, but too much distance turns succor to suckdom.)
The all-too-recognizable situation that our boy limns in “Sex With My Ex” is crass, salacious, and most welcome, even if the call-and-response harmonies and synth burbles evoke Ready For The World more than Prince (what, couldn’t afford Linn drums?). It’s one of the few tracks on which we hear his increasing vocal command; the pause between “you and “suddenly” in the line “just lose control / Beggin’ me to smack it and pull yo hair” and, elsewhere, his breathless high-register delivery in “Go On Girl” (his voice can’t catch up to the repulsive jealous scenarios his mind cooks up) hint that maybe there’s other kinds of advice and reminders he keeps—like Nixon and his legal yellow pads—in that spiral notebook.
But these moments aside, Because of You mostly reminds us of the Ne-Yo Problem. He wants to be bad, but chickens out at the last minute. He wants to write “Oh Sheila” and comes up with “Love You Down”—or, worse, “You Are Not Alone.” Maybe he doesn’t fetishize songwriting so much as a certain kind of warm quiet-storm treacle that’s probably Ne-Yo’s idea of professionalism. Although his many good songs assure us that he’s smart enough to understand the tension between commitment and imagining yourself cheating on your girlfriend, like, all the time, he isn’t resourceful enough to sprinkle this insight into the lyrics he so reveres, not to mention vocals. His songs don’t snap; they glide, like snails on their own ooze. Anita Baker, Alexander O’Neal—hell, even Luther Vandross—would have been more careful about following “Sex With My Ex” with the likes of “Ain’t Thinking ‘Bout You.” This isn’t sequential friction; it’s anti-climax. The polish of Because of You honors Ne-Yo’s influences, but, honorable exceptions aside, the album registers at best as a collective signifier of classiness. That he might be perfectly happy to accept this state of affairs is most worrying in one so young.