Before he was a pop star, Ne-Yo made a decent living as a songwriter-for-hire, crafting hits for other singers. The decision to step into the spotlight grew from want rather than need — a distinction he'd come to appreciate as the child of a single mother growing up in Las Vegas.
"My mom was the picture of the blue-collar mom: Two and three and four jobs to make sure that me and my sister never needed, that was her thing," the singer says. "She was like, 'I don't know if I can focus on your wants, but your needs you will always have. You will always have food, shelter, clothing. As far as the brand-new Jordans ... yeah, maybe not."
Ne-Yo, whose birth name is Shaffer Chimere Smith, released his fifth solo album this year: R.E.D., short for "Realizing Every Dream." Here, he speaks with weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz about attending art school, signing a deal with record executive L.A. Reid and why his nickname — a reference to the "Neo" character in the Matrix movies — didn't sit well with him at first.
On a clumsy first run as a performer
"I had one previous record deal to the one that I have now, and that was the 'learning experience' record deal. What I learned was, I was not supposed to be an artist yet. ... The thing that made me even try it again was that L.A. Reid promised me that he wouldn't try to change me. You know, that was the issue with the initial deal that I had: They kept telling me that me just being me wasn't good enough. I needed to be sexier, I needed to be more hip, I needed to be more edgy and this and that. 'No, don't write that kind of song, write this type of song. No, don't work with that producer, work with this producer. No, don't wear those clothes, wear these clothes.' And I didn't want to be a puppet, you know?"
On being dubbed Ne-Yo by a producer friend
"What he was basically trying to say is, the way that Neo could do things within The Matrix that regular people couldn't do, I can do things within music that regular people can't do. ... I've grown to love it and appreciate it now, but initially I just thought that was way too big a card to hold. If you remember the movie, Neo was like the savior of the world. That's a little deep for me, man. I'm just trying to make music."
"I've never done this from a standpoint of, 'I want to be famous.' I sing because I love singing. I perform because I love performing. I write because I actually enjoy writing. It's a plus and a fringe benefit that, you know, I can actually provide for my family and, you know, a few people know my name — that's great. But I honestly do this because I enjoy it, and I feel like you can hear that in my music — which, if you ask me, is why my music has been as successful as it has, because you can tell that it's coming from a standpoint of passion and love."
GUY RAZ, HOST:
And if you're just tuning in, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "GIVE ME EVERYTHING")
NE-YO: (Singing) Tonight, I will love, love you tonight.
RAZ: That's R&B star Ne-Yo singing the chorus on the hit song "Give Me Everything." Ne-Yo, whose real name is Shaffer Smith, is a one-man hit making machine whether he's working with other singers or on his own. His new record is called "R.E.D." And Ne-Yo started writings songs when he was just 9 years old, living in a working-class neighborhood of Las Vegas.
NE-YO: You know, my mom was the picture of the blue-collar mom, you know, two and three and four jobs to make sure that me and my sister never needed. That was her thing. She was like, I don't know if I can focus on your wants, but your needs, you will always have. You know, you will always have food, shelter, clothing. But as far as the brand-new Jordans, yeah, maybe not.
RAZ: I mean, she focused on making sure you went to good schools and that you had access to performing arts and things like that.
NE-YO: Absolutely. Las Vegas Academy for Theater, Performing and Visual Arts was the high school that I went to. And, yeah, man. I got to say that I learned a lot there.
RAZ: Was it like "Fame" where you're dancing through the halls?
NE-YO: I wasn't, per se, but there were definitely kids dancing through the halls. It was one of those types of school, yeah.
RAZ: Tell me about your name, Ne-Yo, because, of course, it's not your real name.
NE-YO: No, no.
RAZ: How did that come about?
NE-YO: That is a nickname that was given to me by a producer friend of mine. It is definitely a reference from the movie "The Matrix."
RAZ: Ah, yes. Neo.
NE-YO: Oh, yeah. And he said that I see music the way Neo sees the matrix. What he was basically trying to say is the way that Neo could do things within the matrix that regular people couldn't do, I can do things within music that regular people can't do.
RAZ: Why do you think that?
NE-YO: I honestly don't think that.
NE-YO: I didn't like the name when he gave it to me. I mean, I've grown to, you know, love it and appreciate it now. But initially, I just thought that was way too big a card to hold. It's like, you know, if you remember the movie, "The Matrix," Neo was like the savior of the world. I'm like, that's a little deep for me, man. I'm just - at that point, I'm just trying to make music, you know?
RAZ: Early on, you were really a songwriter for hire, and you wrote some huge hits, I mean, for Mario, for - eventually for Rihanna, for Beyonce and others. When you started out and you saw your songs that you were writing become hits sung by other people, was that hard for you?
NE-YO: Not really. At that point in my career, all I wanted to be was a songwriter.
NE-YO: I didn't really think about stepping out in front of the camera until much later. I had one previous record deal to the one that I have now, and that was the quote, unquote, "learning experience" record deal. And what I learned was I was not supposed to be an artist yet. So, you know, I left that alone and said: You know what? I'm just going to be a songwriter, rote those songs, those songs became hits. It wasn't until much later when L.A. Reid offered me a record deal that I'd try it again.
RAZ: L.A. Reid who used to run Def Jam, of course. And that was it? I mean, that's what convinced you to step in front of the mic and to become the star?
NE-YO: Well, the thing that made me even try it again was that L.A. Reid promised me that he wouldn't try to change me. You know, that was the issue with the initial deal that I had is that they kept telling me that me just being me wasn't good enough. I needed to be sexier, I needed to be more hip, I needed to be more edgy and this and that.
And no, don't write that kind of song. Write this type of song. You know, I didn't want to be a puppet, you know? So I let it be known to L.A. Reid. The second he told me he was interested, I was like, listen, I want this, but I don't need it. So if you want a puppet, you know, thanks for your time. I'm going to go my way and you go yours and that is what it is. And then he said to me: You know, I dig what you do. It wouldn't make any sense for me to change it. So from there, I trusted him, and the rest is history.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET ME LOVE YOU")
NE-YO: (Singing) Girl, let me love you, and I will love you until you learn to love yourself. Girl, let me love you and all your trouble. Don't be afraid. Girl, let me help. Girl, let me love you.
RAZ: Do you sing all the time?
NE-YO: All the time.
RAZ: In the shower?
NE-YO: In the shower, out of the shower...
RAZ: In the kitchen.
NE-YO: All day long, oh, yeah.
RAZ: What do you think it is about song that makes you, you know, the person you are?
NE-YO: If I could pinpoint that, then I could write a hit every time I touched pen to paper. So I honestly don't know. I really can't put a finger on what it is that I love about it. It's just the most freeing feeling that I've ever had. You know, age 9 was when I decided my life was going to be music. And I never looked back.
RAZ: I'm speaking with the singer Ne-Yo. His new record is called "R.E.D." When I mentioned that you will be on the program, a lot of people said: Oh, I love him. I work out to all of his music.
RAZ: And I was thinking of Ne-You music, and I just thought: Oh, I'm out of breath, because I'm always like on the treadmill or the elliptical and "Let's Go" comes on. The song...
NE-YO: Yeah. Yeah.
RAZ: ...with Calvin Harris.
NE-YO: Absolutely. That's definitely one of those get-the-blood-pumping songs.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LET'S GO")
NE-YO: (Singing) Let's go. Make no excuses now. I'm talking here and now. I'm talking here and now. Let's go. Your time is running out. I'm talking here and now. I'm talking here and now. It's not about...
RAZ: Is that the kind of music that you almost prefer? You want that kind of energetic, blood-pumping music?
NE-YO: Well, no. Not always. I mean, I could never - me, personally, I could never limit myself to just one style of music, one specific genre of music, you know? So I have to, you know, dabble in R&B and then come over here and try dance and then go over there and try some country music. And I've got to keep moving. I have to keep growing.
RAZ: One of my favorite performances that you've given happened here in Washington, D.C. in 2008, which is a tribute to Barbra Streisand. You sang "Lover Come Back To Me."
NE-YO: Oh, wow.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOVER COME BACK TO ME")
NE-YO: (Singing) The sky was blue and high above. The moon was new, and so was love. This eager heart of mine is singing hey, lover, where can you be?
RAZ: Were you a Streisand fan growing up as a kid?
NE-YO: Oh, yeah. Absolutely.
NE-YO: One of the biggest and best voices in the business. You know, aside from her singing, her movies, you know, she - that's the kind of career that you dream about.
RAZ: That night when you sang that song to her, did you get a chance to talk with her?
NE-YO: Very, very briefly, you know? I honestly didn't want to talk to her because I felt like I had screwed it up, and I didn't want her to tell me that I had screwed it up.
NE-YO: Yeah. So I kept it very brief. Hey, I'm a huge fan. Thank you so much for the opportunity. And I kept pushing before she went: What the hell was that? You know, I don't want to get that.
RAZ: I'm sure she thought: What a great tribute.
NE-YO: I was literally shaking in my boots because I could see her. Oh, please don't let me mess up these words. Yeah, it was a little nerve-wracking. But I pulled it through.
RAZ: You are a father. You've got two kids.
RAZ: You are the senior vice president for A&R of Motown. Your fifth record is out now.
RAZ: You're a huge star. You're at a pretty good place in life.
NE-YO: I genuinely cannot complain. For whatever reason, whoever it is up there, likes me and is making things all right for me. So, yeah, I can't complain.
RAZ: That's the singer Ne-you. His new record "R.E.D." is out now. And, Ne-Yo, thank you so much.
NE-YO: I appreciate it, man. Thank you for taking the time.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "DON'T MAKE 'EM LIKE YOU")
NE-YO: (Singing) Saying hey-ey-ey. I love the way she make. Girl the way you are 'cause they don't make 'em like you no more. Yeah, yeah. Baby girl... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.