As well as having Number 1 singles in his own right, 29-year-old Shaffer Chimere Smith (aka Ne-Yo) has written hits for the likes of Rihanna, Beyoncé, Mary J Blige, Leona Lewis and Janet Jackson. In fact, it seems most female RnB singers worth their salt have knocked on Ne-Yo’s door looking for a radio-friendly ballad – focusing on female empowerment and the worthlessness of men.
It’s a theme that Ne-Yo himself uses for this his third solo album, the implied politeness of the title apparent in every lyric. Year Of The Gentleman starts in fine style with recent Number 1 single Closer, all processed guitar funk and four-to-the-floor beats. It’s the kind of pop song that could have even the most leaden limbs twitching, a perfect alchemy of restrain and release.
Unfortunately it means the album peaks with its first track, a syndrome referred to by no-one as the Crazy In Love phenomenon; you just want to put it on repeat and forget about the rest for fear of disappointment. So while Closer takes some risks with the RnB template, the majority of the rest of the album is sub-Michael Jackson circa Off The Wall, or worse, sub-Usher.
Single, produced by Polow da Don, who was responsible for Usher’s Love In This Club, has even been re-recorded by New Kids On The Block, seemingly with Ne-Yo’s say so. Elsewhere, Why Does She Stay (sample lyric: “She hates that I don’t do dishes, even though I mess up the most”) and Stop The World are simpering ballads as wet as a summers weekend in Brighton, whilst Nobody is the kind of thing Justin Timberlake knocks out in his sleep.
However, when Ne-Yo sticks to what he’s good at which is writing simple, incredibly catchy melodies, the songs come into their own. It’s no coincidence either that the best songs on Year Of The Gentleman are those co-produced by Norway’s Stargate, a songwriting partnership that spawned Beyonce’s Irreplaceable and Rihanna’s recent Number 1 Take A Bow, to name just two.
Second single Miss Independent combines juddering beats with a delicate harp refrain, whilst Mad is the kind of mid-paced love song that will keep those writing credits coming for years to come. In fact part of the problem for Ne-Yo is that he seems too caught up with writing ballads, and though he’s clearly got a knack for writing a big show stopper – as the ridiculously epic Part Of The List shows – you also yearn for some energy, some sweat on the tracks. Closer is evidence enough that when he lets go the results can be spectacular.
So, in the end, Year Of The Gentleman is another fairly generic RnB album that has a couple of killer singles but is padded out with too many Michael Jackson-lite ballads. It’s certainly no surprise that the former King of Pop has called upon Ne-Yo’s writing skills for his forthcoming album – in fact some of the songs here sound like audition tapes for that very job – but Closer aside, Ne-Yo still lacks the ambition to try and take his title.