You can’t discuss contemporary R&B music without Ne-Yo. Since the start of his illustrious career, the Arkansas-bred singer-songwriter, producer, and performer has treated listeners to his buttery vocals, slick dance moves, and poetic lyricism regarding life and love. With a host of top 10 hits, No.1 albums, and platinum plaques, Ne-Yo has proven his abilities as a hitmaker who stretches the confines of genre.
Inspired by artists like Michael Jackson, Donny Hathaway, and Usher, Ne-Yo combines the traditional aspects of R&B with modern flair. One may think ego would accompany his gifts, but Ne-Yo’s unabashed, gentlemanly swagger always has a humility built-in. His dedication to music, passion for performing, and love of songwriting make him a true quiet storm.
Before he became a solo sensation, Ne-Yo got his name off the ground in the mid-2000s as a songwriter. Some of Ne-Yo’s best songs from this period focus on love, sex, and relationships. One of his strongest gifts as a writer is his ability to create memorable, empowering songs for women, no doubt a result of being raised by a single mother and other strong female family members.
Mario – Let Me Love You
Mario’s 2004 single “Let Me Love You” put Ne-Yo on the radar as an R&B songwriter. The velvety, Scott Storch-produced song, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in 2005, also may have a familiar ring to it, as it gently lifts musical elements from Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do With It?”
Rihanna – Unfaithful
The second single from Rih’s 2006 sophomore effort A Girl Like Me, “Unfaithful” is one of many collaborations between Ne-Yo and the Norwegian production team Stargate. The song deals with feelings of regret and shame for cheating on a partner, and features dark production inspired by the rock band Evanescence. Rihanna reportedly reached out to work with Ne-Yo after the success of Mario’s “Let Me Love You,” and was eager to work on a ballad in order to show off her singing chops.
Beyoncé – Irreplaceable
Beyoncé’s number one single “Irreplaceable” went through several twists and turns before making its way into her catalogue. Ne-Yo’s initial idea was to make the 2006 hit a country tune, however, production and lyrical tweaks made it a Queen Bey staple. Ne-Yo also wrote the track from a male perspective, but later recognized it would be more empowering for a woman to sing.
Jennifer Hudson – Spotlight
Thanks to Ne-Yo, Jennifer Hudson’s 2008 debut single showed a different side of the Oscar-winner, whose work in Dreamgirls was focused on theatrics and themes of self-reflection. The mid-tempo R&B ballad keeps her show-stopping pipes intact while remaining relatable to the average listener, as she sings about sticking it to a no-good partner. The song earned Hudson two Grammy nominations.
Keri Hilson – Pretty Girl Rock
Female empowerment and self-love are a few of the themes Ne-Yo focused on for Keri Hilson’s 2010 song, “Pretty Girl Rock.” Over sugary yet sassy production that features a subtle sample of Bill Withers’ “Just The Two Of Us,” Hilson repeats affirmations about being “beautiful” and “fly,” hoping to instill a sense of confidence in herself and her listeners.
The R&B Hits
After a failed try at solo success, Ne-Yo found his lane in 2006 with his debut album, In My Own Words. Years later, he continues to release the thought-provoking, relatable songs that made him a star, while also fitting the fresh vibe of contemporary R&B.
The second single from Ne-Yo’s debut proved to be an instant hit, peaking at the top slot of the Billboard Hot 100 in 2005. Working with longtime collaborators Stargate, “So Sick” was written about the first time Ne-Yo experienced true heartbreak. Because of this pain, he detests love songs, yet they allow him to reminisce about his past relationship.
Take “Sexy Love” as the more positive musical counterpart to “So Sick.” Instead of lyrics about missing a former flame, this time around Ne-Yo sings about how much love he has for his current partner, painting vivid depictions of their time beneath the sheets. The track reached No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100, and is certified three times platinum.
Because of You
The title song from Ne-Yo’s 2007 album (which peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100) tells the story about an intoxicating woman occupying his everyday thoughts. What makes this track stand out is the production. “Because Of You” has an undeniable disco influence, and includes the sounds of a harpsichord and guitar to make the track stand out.
Ne-Yo’s critically-acclaimed third album, 2008’s Year of the Gentleman, dropped off a host of hit tracks, including the top 10 single “Miss Independent.” The mid-tempo ballad about loving a self-sufficient woman samples Keesha’s “Forget About Me,” and won Ne-Yo two Grammy Awards (Best R&B Song and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance).
This Year of the Gentleman staple carries an important message about relationships of all kinds: fighting – instead of listening – only creates more chaos. The Stargate-produced song, which features a heavy piano and bass, finds Ne-Yo explaining to his partner that while they’re not perfect, he hopes that their issues are patched up before bed.
Ne-Yo’s approach to work thrives on collaboration, stating in an interview that some link-ups “just work.” Several of his sonic pairings have been outside of the R&B realm, but his singing talents and songwriting chops remain intact wherever he finds himself.
Hate That I Love You
2007’s “Hate That I Love You” sees Ne-Yo reuniting with his A Girl Like Me collaborator Rihanna. Throughout the track, the two trade lines about being hopelessly in love, and their voices complement each other beautifully as they tell their tale. The platinum-selling tune is one of Rihanna’s longest-running top 10 hits; it peaked at No. 7 on the Hot 100, and was in the top 10 on the chart for 26 weeks.
Knock You Down
Sometimes a good love can become sour, and “Knock You Down” – Ne-Yo’s 2009 collab with Keri Hilson and rapper Kanye West – proves it beautifully. The platinum-selling, Grammy-nominated tune masterfully pairs contemporary R&B with hip-hop flair, and Ne-Yo’s standout verse showcases both his envious vocal runs and storytelling skills. (“I used to be commander-in-chief on my pimp sh*t flying high,” he croons, “‘til I met this pretty little missile that shot me out the sky.”)
Bust It Baby Pt. 2
Rapper Plies made his Janet Jackson-sampling song “Bust It Baby” the first single off Definition of Real, in 2008. It was “Part 2” featuring Ne-Yo, however, that proved to be the version with staying power, as it combines his tender singing voice with Plies’ gritty, hard-hitting rap verses. The second edition peaked at No. 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and No. 2 on the R&B/Hip-Hop chart.
Give Me Everything
“Give Me Everything” is an Afrojack-produced club banger that featured on Pitbull’s 2011 album Planet Pit. Not only did the song hit No. 1 on the charts, it’s certified six times platinum and is one of the best-selling digital singles of all time, with 11.2 million digital copies sold. “Give Me Everything” is also a product of the times, referencing everything from a “locked up” Lindsay Lohan to taking photos in Times Square with Kodak cameras (remember when?).
Time of Our Lives
Another popular link-up between Ne-Yo and Pitbull, “Time Of Our Lives” is featured on Pit’s album Globalization and Ne-Yo’s Non-Fiction (both from 2014). The duo sing and rap about living in the moment and not worrying about what tomorrow will bring. They teamed up with producers Dr. Luke and Cirkut, who created the top 10 hit’s electropop-heavy sound.
Ne-Yo’s Electronic Songs
As electropop began to heat up in the late 2000s and early 2010s, Ne-Yo reintroduced himself as a high-octane hitmaker. He worked closely with artists and DJs to release songs with fiery energy.
A top 10 hit from Ne-Yo’s Grammy-nominated Year of the Gentleman, “Closer” is heavily inspired by a visit to London, which proved to him the impact of house and techno club sounds. To accompany lyrics about his experiences with a magnetic yet enigmatic woman, Ne-Yo and Stargate provide production that is “smoky, kinda dark, and mysterious.”
Turn All The Lights On
Ne-Yo joined T-Pain on his Revolver album in 2012 for “Turn All The Lights On.” The duo worked with Dr. Luke and Cirkut to produce and co-write the song, which is about going hard in the club, partying, and celebrating for the hell of it. T-Pain and Ne-Yo have a brother-like bond, with the rapper saying that the singer “stayed down” and supported him during a period of depression.
Let Me Love You (Until You Learn To Love Yourself)
The Afrojack-produced “Let Me Love You” (not to be confused with the chart-topping song Ne-Yo penned for Mario) peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2012. The song is co-written by Australian singer-songwriter Sia, and describes a love that goes further than just romance. As the title suggests, Ne-Yo wants to help his partner build not just a better relationship with him, but the one she has with herself.
DJ and producer Calvin Harris teamed up with Ne-Yo in 2012 for their gold-certified collaboration “Let’s Go.” A top 20 single, the high-octane tune is hype music, pure and simple, with lyrics about going for your goals. It’s no surprise, then, that “Let’s Go” was used in a Pepsi campaign in 2012 and Ne-Yo performed it during his set at the 2013 NBA All-Star game.
“Play Hard,” a 2013 collaboration between Ne-Yo, David Guetta, and Akon is about the balance of work and play. The electro-house song was a huge hit on Billboard’s Dance Club Songs chart, where it peaked at No. 2. It heavily samples Dutch musician Alice Deejay’s 1999 track “Better Off Alone” and the remix of Italian singer-songwriter Noemi’s “In My Dreams.”