Ne-Yo is a man of many gifts.
The always nattily attired singer-songwriter-producer-dancer and sometimes actor has done well for himself, scoring hits — “So Sick,” “Closer,” “Miss Independent” — and good reviews for his production values and big conceptual swings over the course of his first five albums. But the man born Shaffer Smith has seen his greatest chart successes with songs he’s co-written for other artists, like Rihanna (“Unfaithful,” “Take a Bow,” and their sublime duet “Hate That I Love You”), Beyoncé (“Irreplaceable”), Mario (“Let Me Love You”), and Pitbull (“Give Me Everything”), just to name a few.
That will likely remain the case after the release of “Non-Fiction” his moody, low-key sixth album, out Tuesday.
In the promotional materials for his new release, Ne-Yo says that he partially crowd-sourced the album, a conceptual affair about love and relationships. He reached out on social media to ask fans for their stories, and then included them on “Non-Fiction.”
Apparently, some of those fans know what it’s like to be a famous soul pop singer who has to determine the motives of the people who approach him — particularly those of solicitous women — because several tunes on “Non-Fiction” explore this idea.
“Do you love me for me though, the real me, not my fly alter ego?’ he asks on “Make It Easy,” before quickly, and hilariously, clarifying “I know I’m never not fly.”
Production-wise, Ne-Yo is almost always fly on “Non-Fiction.” The gauzy synths and jittery rhythm tracks go down easy on ballads and uptempo tracks alike. He mashes up electro-pop with laid-back, Southern soul horns on “Religious.” His vocals are ultra-smooth as well, sliding from creamy multitracked harmonies to a spine-tingling, ethereal falsetto, both showcased on the seduction number “Take You There.” He mesmerizes on the circular chorus of “One More.” And he layers in guest rhymes from friends like T.I. and Juicy J without having to resort to a shoehorn.
Alas, not enough of the songs have great tunes to go along with that production and vocal quality. Many of the lyrics bob along on a placid surface, in search of hooks to snatch them up and make them more dynamic.
The song that will have everyone talking, however, is “Storytime,” which has all of that. The track employs a classic Ne-Yo sound — a spare acoustic guitar and a clear, clean melody, the album’s best — in service of a tale of a man trying to convince a woman to have a threesome. “I wish you’d just give it a try, you’ve never done it, how you know what you don’t like?” he cajoles in his sweetest croon, offering (charitably?) to let her pick the other woman.
It’s the most complete “story” in the conceptual context, going from cheekily funny to weird to irritatingly sexist and elsewhere in just over three minutes. The subject matter and execution may not be for everyone, but it’s the most intriguing song on the album — likely because it’s the one that feels least like nonfiction.