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,” says the singer. “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 weekend 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.”