Three-time Grammy winner Ne-Yo’s star power is rising meteorically, but his feet are firmly planted on the ground.
In his own words, Ne-Yo is just a regular guy. But this is only partially true. Regular guys don’t win three Grammys, with a shot at a fourth this month for best dance recording (for “Let’s Go,” his hit with Scottish DJ Calvin Harris). Average Joes don’t have three platinum albums. Nor do they sing hooks for Jay-Z and 50 Cent or write radio anthems for Rihanna, Mary J. Blige and Beyoncé. Even the stage name Ne-Yo connotes a sense of singularity; it was given to him by a producer who said Ne-Yo sees music how Keanu Reeves’ character, Neo, saw the matrix in the Wachowski siblings’ science fiction film franchise.
“I’m a regular guy who can sing, dance and write songs a little bit. Other than that, I’m you, I’m him,” Ne-Yo says on the second floor of the Andaz Hotel in West Hollywood, pointing to his hulking bodyguard in the corner. In any other context, this could come off as false modesty—after all, normal guys don’t need bodyguards. “I don’t like viewing myself above anybody,” Ne-Yo continues. “I just tapped into the gift that God gave me. He gave everyone a gift. I’m just spreading a message of love with it.”
Saying that Ne-Yo can sing, dance and write songs “a little bit” is like saying that Kobe Bryant has a pretty decent jump shot. Even when he’s getting his photos taken, the 30-year-old R&B singer swivels with the athletic grace of Rudolf Nureyev. Few since Michael Jackson can croon or moonwalk so smoothly. In fact, right before Jackson’s death, Ne-Yo was in close collaboration with the King of Pop on an album.
“I’d send him three or four songs a week to choose from and critique. He would constantly say, ‘Keep it short and simple,’” Ne-Yo says, “If you want to say something, then just say it.”
This embrace of directness is one of Ne-Yo’s greatest gifts as a songwriter. Hit songs like “Closer” and “Go on Girl” bleed with heart-on-sleeve admissions that can only come from an artist who has weathered extreme duress and lived to sing about it.
Whereas much contemporary R&B tends toward crass come-ons and sex metaphors, Ne-Yo takes precise aim at the tender turbulence of love. He’s the sort of gentleman who brings to mind Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. This Rat Pack influence partially stems from Ne-Yo’s upbringing in Las Vegas. It’s rare to find a photo of him not looking debonair. Today, he’s immaculately put together, wearing a bomber jacket, fedora, scarf and sneakers, all in black, a Noir T-shirt of an Indian chief and jeans. A dazzling cross and silver dog tags dangle around his neck. And this is his dressed-down look.
He’s come a long way from the country hamlet of Camden (population: 13,000), Ark. Born Shaffer Chimere Smith, Ne-Yo’s family moved West in search of opportunity when he was in grade school. They settled in Las Vegas, where Ne-Yo jokes that he was “the only testosterone in the house,” surrounded throughout his childhood by his mom, sister, grandmother and aunts.
“I like to call myself Frankenstein’s monster,” Ne-Yo says, smiling. “All the negative things that their ex-boyfriends and ex-husbands did wrong, they made sure that I was the exact opposite: the man who listened to women when they were talking, the man who kept his promises.”
Outside of his family, no one knew of his vocal gifts. At his performing arts high school, Ne-Yo was a Salvador Dalí-obsessed art student whose daily outfit consisted of a black hoodie and paint-splattered jeans. A talent show in the 11th grade finally forced Ne-Yo to recognize his singing potential.
“I performed on a dare to take the steam out of how seriously everyone was taking it,” Ne-Yo says. “I got onstage with the intention of doing something stupid, but got caught up in the song [Boyz II Men’s “End of the Road”]. After that, looks in the hallway started changing. People paid attention who never had before and said, ‘You can really sing, you should do something with that.’”
One friend was so impressed that he asked Ne-Yo to join his singing group, Envy. Shortly after graduation, the ensemble moved to Los Angeles in search of a recording contract. Ne-Yo describes the period as one of constant hustle: odd jobs, sleeping in a van in North Hollywood, and standing in front of nightclubs and restaurants, trying to sing in front of anyone who would let them audition.
“Once, we saw Sylvia Rhone [then president of Motown Records] coming out of Roscoe’s Chicken & Waffles,” Ne-Yo says. “We begged her to let us sing for her and she was impressed and told us to come by her office at 8am the next morning. But we didn’t make it because our van broke down.”
Envy disbanded soon after. But before it did, a production company hired Ne-Yo as an in-house songwriter. It eventually earned him notice from Columbia Records, who gave him a deal and attempted to mold him to its executives’ whims. When he blanched at their demands, the label shelved him for two years until he finally procured a release from his contract.
But the strength of his songwriting circulated through the industry. One of his tunes, “Let Me Love You,” ended up hitting No. 1 on the Billboard charts as performed by singer Mario. It led to a meeting with Def Jam boss L.A. Reid, who angled to sign the singer with the golden voice and preternatural knack for melody.
“I told him that I knew he wouldn’t do everything I wanted and vice versa. So we’d have to find a comfortable middle ground or I was comfortable with just being a songwriter,” Ne-Yo says. “He said, ‘I love what you do and it wouldn’t make any sense to change it. Just make sure I can make some money with it.’ That gave me the confidence to start recording my first album the way I wanted to record it.”
Everything since then reads like the résumé of someone fated to end up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He’s sold more than 10 million records, racked up 13 Grammy nominations, sold out arenas and earned a reputation as one of his generation’s pre-eminent experts on the vicissitudes of love.
“There’s no one way to be in love. You just know. For me, it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up,” Ne-Yo says, singing a gorgeous tenor riff of his words from “Sexy Love.” “There’s the misconception that when you fall in love, everything is easy. Like anything else worth it, it’s something you work at. Show me the couple who never fights and I’ll show you two people lying to one another or themselves.”
Over the last few years, Ne-Yo has found love with girlfriend Monyetta Shaw. The pair have two children, Madilyn (2 years) and Mason (1 year). They’ve also relocated from Woodland Hills to Atlanta.
“I thought I was a patient person before I had kids. I’m not at all,” Ne-Yo laughs. “But you have to be and I’m learning. You can’t assume that they know not to smear ketchup on a white wall. It’s your job as a parent to teach them.”
With children, Ne-Yo has absorbed a different set of responsibilities that go beyond having to write a hit. He talks about leaving home after the holidays and his daughter’s devastation over his departure. He also mentions “Alone With You (Maddie’s Song),” from his latest acclaimed album, last November’s R.E.D. The song was the only thing that pacified his newborn when she came home from the hospital.
Though his songwriting and solo career remain strong, Ne-Yo has broadened his reach. He recently became Motown Records’ senior vice president of A&R and co-founded the Compound Foundation, a charity aiding children who grow up in foster and group homes. He’s also appeared in three films, including Stomp the Yard and George Lucas’ Red Tails.
“There are similarities between acting and songwriting. I was just sitting with Beyoncé a few nights ago, and we were talking about her relationship with Jay-Z and being a mother now, and the things that are important to her now versus the things that were important to her three or four albums back,” Ne-Yo says. “I have to tap into who she is in order to write songs for her, to embody her. Acting is pretty much the same thing.”
His most recent album was an acronym for “Realizing Every Dream” and Ne-Yo admits that it’s difficult to find benchmarks that he hasn’t already eclipsed. He hopes to keep evolving as an artist and jokes that he wants as many Grammys as Stevie Wonder. But ultimately, his goals remain modest. He’s normal after all.
“I don’t need all the money or recognition in the world,” Ne-Yo says. “I just need a handful of people to come to a concert if I do one, access to a studio and enough money to make sure that my kids never need. And a nice fedora. All the other stuff is icing on the cake.”
Shot on location at Andaz West Hollywood | Styling by Heidi Meek at Opus Beauty | Hair by Nick the Barber | Makeup by Jazzmene Ellison