When it comes to songwriters, R&B singing/songwriting veteran Ne-Yo has his favorites—but lately, he's really feeling Taylor Swift. "I'm not mad at 'Blank Space'—it's kinda dope," he tells me over the phone earlier this month, professing that he's been listening to the country-gone-pop-megastar "for a minute now. Her stuff is sounding more urban now, the beats are heavier, and she's a country artist—but the music is so good that it doesn't matter." And he isn't shy about name-dropping other artists he admires: Sia ("I was a fan of her as an artist, before I even knew she was a songwriter"); Lana Del Rey ("I'm not sure if she writes her own music, but even if she doesn't, her voice is incredible"); and fellow R&B artists Rico Love and Chris Brown. "When I first met Chris, he wasn't writing at all," Ne-Yo recalls. "Now he can sit at the same table with some of the best writers on the face of the planet, with hits under his belt. I'm happy for him."
Lately, though, Ne-Yo isn't so hot on some of the directions R&B as a genre has taken. "It's not necessarily a bad place—just a trendy place," he says, treading lightly but speaking with sincerity. "It's supposed to be soulful, but there's a lot of 'Fuck me' songs versus 'Make love to me' songs. It's real misogynistic out there right now...I've heard a lot of complaints: 'What happened to the songs about love?' I make it my duty to make sure that the women are appreciated." I ask him about the intro track that appears on his just-released sixth album, Non-Fiction, where he states: The women/ A drug you use that uses you right back. Doesn't that sentiment also reflect specifically misogynistic viewpoints?
Ne-Yo disagrees. "Everyone knows me as the guy that does the songs that celebrate women, and I will always do that—I appreciate the strength of women," he explains in a patient, thoughtful tone. At the same time—just like everything else on the face of the planet—there's negative and positive aspects to women. This specific song is about those predatorial women who prey on dudes with money, or whatever the case may be...On this album, I wrote from standpoints that I don't [usually] get to write from."
Those new narrative perspectives are ripped straight from the digital pages of social media, with lyrics inspired by fan-submitted tales on Twitter and Instagram that Ne-Yo solicited, as well as his own experiences. "I'm telling a lot of truths about some difficult things," he says, keeping mum on which non-fictions are his own and which aren't. "These are our real and true emotions." A particular eyebrow-raiser on the record is "Story Time," in which he describes trying—and failing—to convince a love interest to engage in a threesome with him and another woman. The song sounds like it's delivered with a grin, and possibly contradicts his position on R&B's overly sexed-up tendencies; regardless, the lyrical content is fairly tame given the subject matter, and Ne-Yo confirms that it's all in good fun. "[Being able to] laugh at yourself—that's who I am," he says with a chuckle while discussing the album's more lighthearted moments. "The tone of this album is very serious, so there were moments that I wanted it to lighten up a bit."
Sonically, the 19-track Non-Fiction brims with the smooth, enveloping R&B sound that Ne-Yo's been known for—but there are some curveballs, too. Following their last collaboration, the insanely successful "Give Me Everything," he reunites with ubiquitous global-pop phenom Pitbull for the effortless-sounding filter-disco cut "Time of My Life," while big-room EDM and dusty UK Garage flips surface on "Who's Taking You Home" and "Coming With You," respectively. "I'm cool with the fact that the lines are being blurred," Ne-Yo states pragmatically about the album's occasional genre-hopping tendencies. "I personally want to be in the place where you're not thinking about genre—you're thinking about Ne-Yo."
And what's Ne-Yo thinking about—that is, when he's not bumping Lana Del Rey or penning tales of lost menage a trois opportunities? Parenthood—specifically, his four-year-old daughter and three-year-old son. "My son is the spitting image of me—his personality is absolutely mine, while my daughter's personality is absolutely her mother's" he says fondly. "It's a great thing, but it's a little scary too. I was a sneaky little kid and I can already tell my son's going to be real sneaky...I'm not looking forward to that." On the upside, they potentially stand to join their daddy on stage, too: "They sing everything—everything they do is a song, they make up songs all day." Someone get Pitbull on the phone, stat.