Originally published on So So Gay on 5 February 2015.
TLDR: A solid return from Ne-Yo, but with some mixed results on the collaboration front as well as a few too many detours away from the intended R&B whole.
The self-styled gentleman of R&B, Ne-Yo returns this week with his sixth studio album, Non-Fiction. It marks three years since R.E.D., his last album, and has been proclaimed as an R&B record. With the genre still struggling to regain its circa 2000-heyday footing, does Ne-Yo’s new album take things a step in the right direction?
Well, helpfully, yes and no.
In a bid to appeal to different fanbases and stay current, Non-Fiction does include polished slices of contemporary R&B in addition to occasional off-message efforts; some of the collaborations also further muddy the waters. The album’s second single, the Juicy J featuring ‘She Knows’, is a trap-flavoured turn that sounds like the ghost of Katy Perry’s ‘Dark Horse’ – a comparison not helped by it featuring the same rapper. Pitbull, the man who’s clearly entered into a Faustian pact, appears on third single ‘Time of Our Lives’; a generic, urban-tinged pop song that sounds like every other ‘featuring Pitbull’ vehicle. Thankfully, it’s followed by the album’s latest cut, ‘Coming With You’, which undoes a lot of the damage. Its 90s throwback and feelgood vibe make it a shrewd single choice, with an obvious commercial appeal – though again not really in the R&B ballpark.
That said, Non-Fiction does include some soulful numbers that will definitely please those of us who hark back to the glory days of R&B. Slow jam ‘Good Morning’ is one of the smoothest tracks found on the album, and is a co-write between Ne-Yo and Akon. The sort of sensual sound that Marsha Ambrosius can do in her sleep, it’s nicely paired with lead single ‘Money Can’t Buy’ for a 1-2 R&B punch, even if the latter has a superfluous rap from Jeezy.
One of the most interesting numbers is penultimate track ‘Story Time’. In a world where R&B and hip-hop artists are often overly concerned with bravado and materialism, ‘Story Time’ is about a conversation between a couple where the man (Ne-Yo) is trying to instigate a threesome with his girlfriend and another girl. This sounds admittedly awful on paper, but its self-aware lyrics and Ne-Yo’s comical and playful delivery make this an unlikely and humourous gem straight out of left space. Unfortunately, the album closes on ‘Ballerina’, which is a bit of a by-numbers and forgettable slice of R&B to round things off.
Non-Fiction is a solid album, if a little confused in its sonic identity. When he ditches the knuckle-dragging rappers with their heard-it-all-before and tiresome lyrics, Ne-Yo still has a lot to bring to the R&B table. What the genre needs is an artist to jump head-first into the sound and embrace it unashamedly, rather than sporadically kowtowing to the obvious on-trend tastes, acting as a musical safety net. Nevertheless, Ne-Yo has crafted another respectable entry for his back catalogue with this album.
Standout Tracks: ‘Integrity’ / ‘Coming With You’ / ‘Good Morning’ / ‘Story Time’