Growing up in Las Vegas, singer-songwriter Ne-Yo, aka Shaffer Chimere Smith, was surrounded by tons of estrogen in the form of tourists, transient folks and even in his own house. Specifically, the now-42-year-old lived with his mother, sister, grandmother and five aunts.
“Not a lot of testosterone to this house,” he told me on this week’s “Renaissance Man” episode. He said it taught him to be a good listener. “But this is where I fell in love with an independent woman because these were the kind of women that were going to get up and get their hands dirty if they needed to. It ain’t no man around to change a tire, so we got to change the tires … It was those types of women.”
He attended a performing arts high school in Sin City but said he did get into some trouble when he was coming of age. “I started being a knucklehead a little bit, getting in trouble, doing stupid stuff. And that’s when my mom made me start writing. It started out as journal entries and then eventually transformed into songs.”
We can thank his mother’s disciplinary measures for the Ne-Yo we know today.
“I credit my entire writing ability and career to my mother. She gave me that red notebook and said, ‘Write it down.’ And as I write said, ‘Write what down?’ She said, ‘I don’t give a damn. Just write it down.’ And then from there, everything else happened the way it’s supposed to. I’m Ne-Yo now.”
The man is known for wearing many hats, literally and figuratively. He has his own hits and he’s written for major singers, many of whom go by only one name: Mario, Rihanna and, of course, Beyoncé, whose anthem “Irreplaceable” he penned. He said it was inspired by one of his aunts’ love lives, which included a string of boyfriends.
“One dude that stuck around a little longer than everybody else, but he found a way to mess it up. Everything in the song is true. She really did buy this dude a car and this dude really was rolling the car around in the city with another chick in it. She’s about to put all this stuff in a box to the left of the closet and told him to get on. So I wrote the song initially to keep it. I tried to flip it and write it from a male perspective. And what I realized is that this song does not work as well from a male perspective as it does from a female perspective. So once Beyoncé finally got her hands on it, that was all she wrote. The rest is history.”
Once again, he’s used real life to inspire his art. This time, he’s poking around in his own house. His new single “Don’t Love Me” off “Self Explanatory,” his first studio album since 2018, is an honest look at his own relationship with his wife, Crystal Renay Smith. He said they were struggling right before the pandemic and about to divorce, but they reunited in an over-the-top ceremony in April.
“It just kind of got to that place where we couldn’t talk no more. It’s like there’s clearly beef here, but I got to go. I was at a place where I didn’t know if I wasn’t capable of being the man that I felt like she deserved. And so that’s what the song is basically saying: ‘Don’t love me, walk away. You’d be better for it because I know that if I just let you stay. And if you stay, I’m probably wind up hurting you. So I want I want you to go’. And it took my highly intelligent wife to point out to me in the moment that basically she wasn’t gonna let me cop out. She said, ‘It’s not that you can’t be the man that I deserve is that you won’t.’”
He still has a few folks on his collaboration bucket list, but at the top is Drake. “Been a huge fan of Drake since the beginning. I’m really, really impressed with just his writing ability, his rap ability. Nothing the dude can’t do. I’d be anxious to see what a Ne-Yo-Drake song sounds like.” Ne-Yo had a hand in Rihanna’s early success; Jay-Z introduced the pair and he wrote her mid-2000s hits “Take a Bow” and “Unfaithful.”
“When I first met Jay, Rihanna is one of the first artists that he talked to me about. [Jay-Z said,] ‘So we got this young lady, she’s from Barbados, she has a really, really dope energy.’ So when I met her, she was young still … I met her when she was still a kid,” he said, adding that it makes him feel uncomfortable when friends comment on her sex appeal.
“She’s always been a workhorse. She’s the one that will get in the studio, stay in the studio until it’s done. I’m saying everybody’s asleep on a couch and she’s still hammering away at it. Like she’s that person. So I completely understand how she’s as successful as she is now because from a kid, she was like, ‘The work must be done.’”
The Vegas-reared artist is now based out of Atlanta and is part of that music scene developed by LA Reid and Babyface. The best part of recording in that city?
“Atlanta is its own animal … and that’s refreshing to me that you could come out here and kind of let your freak flag fly, so to speak. And not only is it accepted, but it’s embraced. The more individual you are here, the more love you get, as opposed to running around trying to be like or sound like somebody else.”
He talked about his own evolution with record labels who wanted to put him in one box that he didn’t see himself in. The now-seasoned veteran reminded people that you don’t necessarily need a record deal to get started. And he’s got some wisdom for aspiring entertainers.
“The music industry is full of people trying to be what they saw on TV or what they saw on TikTok. I’ll put it to you this way: If there’s a thing about you or a thing that you do that anyone has ever made fun of before, because it’s individually you, that’s your superpower. Figure that out and use that. Blow that up. Because I’m telling you, that’s the thing. That thing that separates you from everybody else,” he said.
Advice so good, you can write it down in the Ne-Yo red notebook.
Detroit native Jalen Rose is a member of the University of Michigan’s iconoclastic Fab Five, who shook up the college hoops world in the early ’90s. He played 13 seasons in the NBA, before transitioning into a media personality. Rose is currently an analyst for “NBA Countdown” and “Get Up,” and co-host of “Jalen & Jacoby.” He executive produced “The Fab Five” for ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, is the author of the best-selling book, “Got To Give the People What They Want,” a fashion tastemaker, and co-founded the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a public charter school in his hometown.