In just a few short years, Shaffer Smith (known to most of us as Ne-Yo) has become one of pop/R&B’s most respected songwriters. Since breaking through with Mario’s “Let Me Love You”, the Vegas native has penned songs for acts like Beyonce (“Irreplaceable”), Rihanna (“Unfaithful), Usher, Mary J. Blige and Celine Dion, to name just a few. Unlike most of today’s pop acts, Ne-Yo brings a classicist’s touch to his songwriting. He actually writes stories instead of a few chants wrapped around a hook. Take some of the slang out and he could have been writing in the Sixties or Seventies.

The man has since pursued a second career as an artist in his own right, with two hit albums under his belt. As a singer and performer, Ne-Yo, like just about every other young male artist in pop & R&B, owes much to Michael Jackson. His high tenor can be compared favorably to “Off the Wall” and “Thriller”-era MJ, and his dance moves are nothing if not Jacksonesque.

Unfortunately, Ne-Yo’s albums have been a mixed bag so far. While 2006’s In My Own Words was a solid effort that hinted at greatness, 2007’s Because of You was a well-written but somewhat boring follow-up. After that, I wasn’t sure if Ne-Yo had a great album in him…until now.

Ne-Yo. Photo by Robin Wong.

Ne-Yo. Photo by Robin Wong.

The new Year of the Gentleman is a pleasant surprise, to say the least. This is his third album in three years, and you’d expect there to be some burnout, but Ne-Yo places the best-written songs of his career on this album. While the hooks are catchy and the production is interesting, it’s the lyrics that set the tone for the album. Tied around a loose concept, Ne-Yo uses this album to take back some of the more crude elements that have plagued popular music lately. He’s the R&B singer you can take to meet Mom.

He throws us a bit of a red herring at the beginning of the album with first single Closer. This uptempo track is different than anything Ne-Yo has recorded before, with a distinct Europop/house flavor. However, the majority of the rest of the album primarily consists of midtempo songs in Ne-Yo’s typical style, although some electro and rock elements previously nonexistent in his work crop up.

If you thought Ne-Yo was aping MJ before, well you ain’t heard nothing yet. Nobody rips Michael down to the hiccups in his vocals. You almost expect to hear a “hee hee!” or “chamone!” buried in the mix. It’s a bit jarring, because as opposed to a mere imitation, it sounds so much like a lost MJ track that you’ll find yourself doing a double-take at the CD booklet to make sure you didn’t pop “Thriller” in by mistake. I was really expecting to hate current single Miss Independent, because I thought it might just be Ne-Yo sucking up to his female fan base in order to sell records, but the bouncy concoction turns out to be one of the album’s best songs. He’s still sucking up, but at least he does it well. There’s also a version of the current NKOTB feat. Ne-Yo hit Single that pulls the New Kids out of the mix. I’ve gotta say-Joe McIntyre’s vocals-or rather the contrast between his vocals and Ne-Yo’s-make the song better. The version on Year of the Gentleman pales by comparison.

Later on the album, Ne-Yo lets his pen do the talking, and the results are fantastic. Fade Into the Background is a melancholy, synthesizer-dominated song on which Ne-Yo reminisces about a former love, as a guest at her wedding. Anyone who has had a former flame who’s now involved with someone else will relate to this one. On a somewhat similar tack, Back to What You Know finds Ne-Yo as a boyfriend whose current love is still carrying a torch for a previous love, while the skeletal Why Does She Stay finds Ne-Yo feeling unworthy in the eyes of a woman who caters to his every need while he just sort of ignores her. There’s a sadness in Ne-Yo’s voice when he sings these songs that makes you think he’s actually suffered through these events on a personal level.

Not to say that the whole album finds Ne-Yo doing the R&B equivalent of drowning in his sorrows. The dramatic Lie to Me features the most forceful, angry singing of Ne-Yo’s career (he again strongly resembles MJ here), as he asks his lady not to tell him she’s been creeping around, because he doesn’t want to be responsible for his actions afterwards. Meanwhile, album closer Stop This World
has a light rock edge to it and features lyrics that perfectly capture the confusion of that rush of falling in love.

I bought this album with modest expectations and was pretty much blown away by the quality of the music here. The subject matter and the musical elements stick to a basic framework, but also manage to be varied enough to keep my interest all the way through…a little dance flavor here, smooth balladry there, acoustic guitars over electronic claptracks somewhere else. Lyrically, it proves that an R&B singer under 30 can make an album about adult emotions and relationships while still staying contemporary enough to get played on modern “urban” radio. If you’ve got a taste for good music, you should probably give this “gentleman” a chance.