Ne-Yo, giant in R&B, sees new outlet in TV

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A decade after Ne-Yo rose to stardom with his velvety yet infectious R&B, the singer is finding a renewed outlet through a fresh medium — television.

Ne-Yo was brought in as co-writer of the music for the ongoing second season of “Empire,” the blockbuster drama on Fox television about the schisms within a founding family of hip-hop entrepreneurs.

The 36-year-old singer and songwriter — who surprised fans by also acting on “Empire,” playing himself — hailed the show for merging songs and storylines.

The result, Ne-Yo said, is a devoted fan base eager to buy the stream of singles released off “Empire,” which has been renewed for a third season.

“‘Empire’ has found a way to make people pay for music again,” Ne-Yo told AFP in Brooklyn, where he on Thursday opened the inaugural Grammy Park festival.

Ne-Yo said that he sought to strike a balance in creating music for “Empire” that had both a classic and contemporary feel.

“I kind of wanted to go both ways. As ‘now’ as it could be without just being trendy, and you always want to add that element of timelessness,” he said.

– Star in Japan –

Ne-Yo, whose real name is Shaffer Smith, first found stardom indirectly as the writer of the 2004 hit “Let Me Love You” by the singer Mario.

Ne-Yo — who jokes that, “for two years, I was that dude who wrote that Mario song” — followed up with a string of hits on his own such as the mellow but danceable “Because of You,” “So Sick” and the faster-paced “Closer.”

He has remained successful at home — his last album, 2015’s “Non-Fiction,” reached the top five on the US chart — but Ne-Yo has also found an unexpectedly fervent fan base in Japan.

Ne-Yo — who has worked with Japanese singer Utada Hikaru among other stars — said he himself was puzzled by his appeal in Japan but pointed to the dominance of melodies in J-pop tunes.

“I can go to Japan and listen to the radio and — having no idea what’s being sung about — the melodies and the way they wrap the melodies around the music, I can relate to that,” he said.

Ne-Yo won new respect in Japan in 2011 when he refused to cancel a tour after the tsunami tragedy, instead donating proceeds to charity. But he was nervous the first time he played in Japan.

“I was shaking because I pride myself on being able to communicate with my audience and I don’t speak Japanese and I knew they didn’t speak English, and I was like — what the hell am I going to do?” he recalled.

“So I got up there and I think I gave a thumbs-up and they gave me a thumbs-up back. And from the first note, they sang every word — in English — and it blew me away,” he said.

“I was floored by that. It kind of proved the power of music to me that day,” he said.

– Prince a ‘king’ –

Grammy Park, a new festival launched by the Recording Academy which runs the Grammy Awards, aims to reach out to a diverse audience and features free weekend concerts in Brookyn.

Ne-Yo, a three-time Grammy winner, said he wanted to “celebrate the goodness of music — real melodies, real instruments, lyrics that mean something” in an era increasingly dominated by computerized beats.

Ne-Yo also wanted to celebrate Prince. He entered the stage at Kings Theatre to a medley of the late pop legend’s hits and covered “The Beautiful Ones,” his band bringing jazzy touches on trombone and trumpet as Ne-Yo reached Prince’s vocal highs with his “love symbol” rotating behind on a screen.

Ne-Yo called Prince one of his “four kings” along with Michael Jackson, Sammy Davis Jr. and — the sole still alive — Stevie Wonder.

“Prince was getting booed off stage for the first few years of his career doing the exact same thing that made him the icon that he is,” Ne-Yo said.

“That takes courage — to just be who you are and wait for the world to figure it out.”

by Shaun Tandon
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