Written by David Lehmann
Making a bold move in a music economy that sidelines traditional R&B in favor of dance floor universality, Ne-Yo has promised that his upcoming album will be “predominately R&B.” For certain R&B fans this is welcome news. True, Ne-Yo’s craft as an R&B songwriter and producer came through on R.E.D., his last album–“Miss Right” borrows West-Coast ratchet’s blueprint and then fills it with sweet harmonies and watercolor synths reminiscent of late-night mist; “Stress Reliever” dives into the drunken whining of nu-underwater R&B with a low, blissful hum. But that clutch of R&B songs ultimately played second-string to towering bursts of electronic joy like “Let Me Love You.” It’s a tact that many acts have assumed in recent years: split albums genre-wise to score hits in both Top 40 and niche markets. Yet recent changes to Billboard’s charting algorithm have rendered this strategy futile.
This probably explains, in part, why Ne-Yo and Nicki Minaj have signaled a return to their “roots,” a nebulous declaration that’s nevertheless a middle finger to the new economic imperatives of a changed Billboard chart. The Birth of Ne-Yo, an LP that dropped last year, apparently accidentally, clarifies just what such action means to Ne-Yo. Many of the production flourishes are nods to classic R&B cuts and the work as a whole is homologous to 90’s R&B. It reveals itself a warm homage, a turn away from prevailing trends–particularly amongst a subset of Soundcloud bros–that reduce a decade’s R&B output to ghostly pastiche or cold fetish object.
3 Simple Rules, however, takes a different approach to “roots.” On one hand, this is a personal return to form. Ne-Yo makes sly references to his previous work: on “Bigger Than This” he sings about a “love-hate thing” and on “New Love” he clarifies just why he loves it when his girl gets mad, “argue like we mean it/the redder it gets the more passionate we can be with that makeup sex.” But a broader definition of “roots” also exists here.
Ne-Yo covers the basic content of so much R&B: love, heartbreak, and sex. He also wants to sum up love cleanly in terms of three overarching rules, like the mathematician who strives for the simplest, most powerful equation. Yet the emotionally messy content of the songs proves the difficulty in reducing a genre to “loverman cliches, soapy drama, and bottle-service grooves.” Keeping love brand new is one approach to nurturing a relationship, but clearly the path of cycling through “breakup and makeup every day” is risky. “Normally we don’t stay mad for too long,” Ne-Yo sings on the second track as he begs for his girl to forgive him, revealing the naiveté of his strategy. (I would love to hear Kelly Rowland or Keri Hilson on a remix of this, a la Kimbra on “Somebody That I Used To Know.”) And as always with Ne-Yo, he inhabits the space between honeyed joy and strained pain so that he can bend his voice in multiple directions, employing falsetto and melisma both as sexual come-on and broken cry.
If this EP’s narrative complexity subverts its compactness, the same goes for its production. “Bigger Than This” repurposes Disclosure synth patterns as a lush backdrop fit for Year of the Gentleman. “Gotchu Right” with its soft guitars and orgasmic harmonies, situates itself as a member of the “Untitled (How Does It Feel)” family, albeit spliced with the rhythmic tics of Trap. Even the most blatant throwback, “New Love,” is not so backward-looking considering Ariana Grande’s similar aesthetic on last year’s Yours Truly. It’s an approach that portrays genres and sub-genres as more conversant with each other than the increasingly atomized nature of music listening would have us believe. That’s not surprising coming from the person who claims, “There wasn’t a lot of R&B cats doing songs at 120 beats per minute before ‘Closer,’ which I take full credit and responsibility for.” All that’s left to do now is for Ne-Yo to make good on his promise to “see y’all soon.”
Link: Ne-Yo’s 3 Simple Rules