In My Own Words
ontemporary R&B; isn’t in the best place right now. Save for Mary J., there’s a serious lack of consistency and dearth of creativity being released these days. Just look at a few of the recent major rookies hitting the charts:
Bobby Valentino? I stand by what I wrote last year. Garbage.
Mario? You may come back when you’ve stopped being a whiny-ass bitch.
Keyshia Cole? I don’t get the hype. “Love” is Pro-Tooled to death, and her previous singles were by-the-cliché-book, except for “I Should Have Cheated,” which is just plain appalling.
T-Pain? Sounds like this year’s Akon, a gimmick awaiting a semi-successful career as a hook singer (hello Nate Dogg!). Singers planning on real careers don’t cut material like “I’m N Luv (Wit A Stripper).”
Chris Brown? He’s got a pleasant enough, if awfully thin, voice, but the material’s just not there. Kid can dance, though.
Even a sophomore artist like Amerie, who scored a smash hit with “1 Thing,” couldn’t make the magic of her single extend to its corresponding album, which sounded limp and hashed together.
Accordingly, then, expectations have been high surrounding newcomer Ne-Yo, personally signed—and touted—by Def Jam head Jay-Z. Not only does he have a lovely, supple tenor, but he writes songs like crazy and well; among his recent hits is Mario’s “Let Me Love You” (the #1 R&B; single of 2005, according to Billboard), along with songs for Mary J. (Mary!) and Faith Evans. He’s reportedly working with Beyoncé, and was even asked to help with Whitney Houston’s next album. And that’s the biggest part of what’s exciting about Ne-Yo, and so rare in mainstream R&B;: he’s a songwriter first.
In a recent interview with Soundslam.com, Ne-Yo described his sound as “Quality R&B;, when cats used to sing with melody, harmony, and stuff like that. Like what Boyz II Men, Jodeci, and Guy used to do. It’s not Hip Hop/R&B;, not Crunk & B, just traditional good old fashioned R&B.;” And damn if that’s not what he’s done on his debut album, In My Own Words. The CD’s cover and accompanying booklet have a notebook theme to drive the point home that Ne-Yo’s a songwriter; it might seem tedious if the kid wasn’t so good. He co-wrote every single song on the album, and you get it hearing him sing ‘em—Ne-Yo believes these songs, ‘cause he knows ‘em, ‘cause they’re his.
The only guests here are Peedi Peedi—he graces teaser single (and opener) “Stay,” a sexy rumbler, in a way that makes perfect sense (i.e. he’s unobtrusive)—and Ghostface, who returns the favor Ne-Yo granted (by appearing on “Back Like That,” the first single from Fishscale) with some bars on a hidden remix of “Get Down Like That.” There are no “hot” producers present on In My Own Words. No sleazy take-off-your-panties ballads. But also no oh-so-earnest, I’m-a-real-musician B.S. akin to what’s all over Grammy darling John Legend’s debut album (which is good, but gimme a break—Get Lifted is as overpraised in certain circles as Crash was at the Oscars). This is contemporary R&B; production that sounds perfectly of its place on the radio. You’ll nod ya head. And that’s kind of the point.
#1 single “So Sick” is superb, to be sure, a single that gets better and richer upon further listening: “I’m so sick of love songs / So tired of tears / So done with wishing / You were still here” just nails it. Who hasn’t experienced that? Except Goths and metalheads, I mean. The production’s simple and elegant, complementing the lyrics nicely. Follow-up “When You’re Mad” is another great lyric, and so seemingly obvious—who hasn’t found a partner sexy when s/he gets mad? So there’s another one hit outta the park, and this album’s loaded with ‘em. “It Just Ain’t Right” flips on a hot sample of Switch’s “I Call Your Name” which is actually crucial to the song’s lyrical context. “Sign Me Up” is loaded with church organ set against a beat which could’ve come from Dipset, but sounds even nicer backing up Ne-Yo’s R&B.; Nearly every song on In My Own Words has a little something extra like that, too. Pencil Ne-Yo in as R&B; rookie of the year—and don’t be surprised if no one trumps him before 2006 is gone.