There are considerable reasons to approach Non-Fiction with doubt. It follows R.E.D., Shaffer Smith's least satisfying studio set. His first release to fall short of gold-selling status, R.E.D. was trailed by another series of support roles on dance-pop singles and rap album cuts. David Guetta's ….
Ten years ago, Ne-Yo crooned his way into the hearts and minds of rhythm and blues fans worldwide. His being “‘So Sick’ of love songs” resonated with two million-plus fans and kicked off a career spanning six albums, ten top-ten singles and nearly ten million albums sold worldwide. Thus, with latest album Non-Fiction, Ne-Yo has nothing really left to prove as a dominant mainstream performer, and decided to create an album that’s more engendered to telling stories with Pop-friendly and stream-ready singles than pushing massive numbers of albums.
Ne-Yo's sixth album is being positioned as a return to the R&B singer's musical roots. It's an attempt to grab back Ne-Yo's core fan base given his affinity for dabbling (quite successfully, it must be said) in dance and EDM in recent years. While singing hooks on Pitbull tracks like "Give Me Everything" and having hits like "Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself)" from 2012's R.E.D.
Though he came of age during the heyday of the bad-boy R&B singer, Ne-Yo’s allegiances have always belonged to an earlier, more chivalrous era of pop music. Over his first four albums, the singer honed an image not just as the best dressed, best behaved guy in the room, but as the heir to the Rat Pack’s dapper legacy, embodying an ideal of class and sophistication that disappeared generations ago. A decade in, however, Ne-Yo’s class act routine doesn’t carry the novelty it once did, and his spotless image has never felt more at odds with the times.
In the seduction game of R&B, Ne-Yo is a few steps ahead of his male peers. Not only are women afforded greater complexity in his songwriting, they often dominate the sexual play. Unworthy suitors run for their lives at the start of this enjoyable album, his sixth, though the honey-voiced singer usually ends up winning over the objects of his affections.
With younger, fresher soulmen like Miguel, Frank Ocean and the Weeknd on the scene, Ne-Yo has been left grasping for relevance. In the intro to the deluxe edition of this sprawling album, he confusingly describes Non-Fiction as "complete fiction" about "real characters going through real things." The music, sadly, can be just as tough to follow: Ne-Yo aimlessly veers from fist-pumping with David Guetta and Pitbull to pimp-strolling with Jeezy and Juicy J. His smoothest moves come when he channels longtime influence Michael Jackson (the Off the Wall groove of "Coming With You") and Marvin Gaye (the I Want You seduction of "Integrity").
If you thought you’d heard the last of Ne-Yo’s concept-album dalliances on 2010 dud Libra Scale, brace yourself. On Non-Fiction, the Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and producer has attempted an album built on his own experiences interwoven with “true stories about real people” from fan submissions on social media. The results fall somewhere between his early, velvety R&B and more recent forays into thumping EDM club-banger territory – see Pitbull collaboration Time of Our Lives or 2012’s Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself).
Why is the deluxe edition of Ne-Yo’s Non-Fiction 19 tracks long? And what’s with the goofy R&B noir setup that drives the mood of the first few tracks, only for Ne-Yo to ditch it in the second and third acts, which then instead read like bits of a pickup artist’s memoir? What is this, Thr33 Ringz? Why are Ne-Yo and Motown so apparently eager to release a full-length album take on Rick Ross, Wale, and Drake’s “Diced Pineapples”? Who do I sue for damages? How do I make it stop? (Pauses. ) Not that you'd guess as much from listening to Non-Fiction, but songwriting is, typically, Ne-Yo’s strongest, more lucrative forte. He's written hits for Beyonce and Rihanna, and duets with the likes of Rick Ross and Celine Dion.
Ne-Yo may be a man of many talents, but his new album, Non-Fiction, makes it clear that the scope of those talents is limited. His vocals, in particular, can't be tasked with carrying too much weight, working best on agile dance-pop tunes, acoustic ballads, and smooth sex-jams like 2012's “Lazy Love. ” Tellingly, that song, from R.
Ne-Yo is a man of many gifts. The always nattily attired singer-songwriter-producer-dancer and sometimes actor has done well for himself, scoring hits — “So Sick,” “Closer,” “Miss Independent” — and good reviews for his production values and big conceptual swings over the course of his first five albums. But the man born Shaffer Smith has seen his greatest chart successes with songs he’s co-written for other artists, like Rihanna (“Unfaithful,” “Take a Bow,” and their sublime duet “Hate That I Love You”), Beyoncé (“Irreplaceable”), Mario (“Let Me Love You”), and Pitbull (“Give Me Everything”), just to name a few.