Maybe [artist id="2002414"]Ne-Yo[/artist] knew something we didn't when he decided to call his third album, Year of the Gentleman. After a somewhat lackluster second outing, the in-demand songwriter and lid-loving dance machine stormed back to the forefront of the R&B game with a string of smash hits that catapulted him into Album of the Year Grammy contention.
With six Grammy nominations this year — to add to his 2007 win for Best Contemporary R&B album — Ne-Yo (born Shaffer Chimere Smith), 29, is used to writing inescapable hits for other artists. From his 2004 breakthrough for [video id="38446"]Mario ("Let Me Love You")[/video] to [video id="229087"]Rihanna's "Take a Bow"[/video] and [video id="114286"]Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable,"[/video] the "So Sick" songwriter has had a pretty sick track record.
Ne-Yo named Gentleman in homage to the Rat Pack era of the 1960s, when stars like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin always looked their best while singing the songs that made the ladies swoon, much the way he tries to do.
But while Ne-Yo wanted to capture that smooth sensibility in his lyrics, his longtime writing partners in the production duo Stargate had different ideas. "It was definitely more suave on the lyrical side, with all this talk about being very sympathetic and gentlemanlike on songs like 'Miss Independent,' " Stargate's Tor Hermansen told MTV News. "But we wanted to make [the music] very urgent and contemporary sounding but with classic melodies. We didn't want to go retro with the production."
In a break from the usual modern R&B style, the album is all Ne-Yo, with no featured guests on any of the songs, four of which were produced by Stargate. In a review of the album, a Rolling Stone writer jokingly wrote that while Ne-Yo intended it to be an homage to the Pack, it was "actually a superb concept album about what a great boyfriend he can be."
None of the songs tell that story better than radio staple "Miss Independent," a slinky, spare slice of future funk in which Ne-Yo praises his girl because she "work like a boss, play like a boss/ Car and a crib, she 'bout to pay 'em both off/ And her bills are paid on time." But it was with the club-banging "Closer" that Ne-Yo closed the deal. The album-opening first single with the propulsive Euro club beat and pleading chorus, "I just can't stop," is classic Ne-Yo 2.0: remix ready and slathered with the kind of girl-power boosting message that gets women on the dance floor in gaggles as the men line up beside them saying, "Yeah, what he said!"
Hermansen said one of the first things Ne-Yo said he wanted to do with Gentleman was to really shake up his sound. "The first record we did was an uptempo song, which we've never really done with him before," Hermansen said. "We started ['Closer'] with a live guitar, and he got on it. And as soon as it was done we said, 'This is something we've never done before.' We wanted to blend a European club feeling with a soulful melody on top. It's very simple, but it also drives, which really works in a club. People go crazy in the club, but they can also sing along to it."
That mix of European beats and classic American R&B set the tone for the sessions, which Stargate's Mikkel Eriksen said helped open up Ne-Yo's sound to new fans across the globe. "He was very excited about it, which is why we're never afraid to throw curve balls at him, because he's so versatile," Eriksen said. "That blend really works throughout the whole world — Europe, U.S., Asia — and he's such a soulful singer that it's obviously a soul record, but there wasn't too much thinking about genres."
With his sensitive, silky vocals and a musical box of tricks that moonwalks from soaring Beatle-esque pop ("Stop This World") to 1960s Motown acoustic soul ("Back To What You Know") and Justin Timberlake-style android-with-a-heart balladry ("Lie to Me"), Ne-Yo did serve up a bit of everything on the album, but even he didn't expect how well-received it would be.
As confident and smooth as he is, Ne-Yo told MTV News in December that he was blown away by his Grammy nominations. "They came up and they told me, 'Oh, by the way, you got six. It wasn't just that one,' " he said. "That works too! Damn! That means that I have six chances to win a Grammy. One nomination would have been enough for me. How do you do anything but smile at that? ... This is the Grammys. This is not a game!"
But it's probably not just luck that got Ne-Yo all those nods, it was his willingness to stretch beyond his musical comfort zone.
"He didn't want to do just traditional R&B," said Hermansen. "He had done that, and we had done that. We wanted to step out of that and see what other things we could put together to make contemporary R&B interesting. The fact that he went in and wanted to change his sound and the R&B sound is what made this special."
Will Lil Wayne grab all the gramophones? Is Katy Perry going to tell her girl rivals to kiss off? Can Coldplay march off with a win? MTV News is all over the 51st Annual Grammy Awards, so stay tuned for interviews, analysis and more before, during and after the big night, Sunday, February 8.