Ne-Yo – Good Man
Ne-Yo – Good Man
For the first five years of his recording career, wide-ranging singer/songwriter Ne-Yo carved a highly impressive slot for himself in the R&B world with an ingratiating style highlighting emotionally savvy lyrics from a man’s point of view that showed a mature grasp of women’s feelings in relationships. Alongside that, his appealing vocal delivery, bearing a hint of influence from Michael Jackson’s limber phrasing but with a smoothness of his own, has continually been a welcome deviation from the over-produced performances of many of his radio contemporaries. Finally, the coolly tempered music of mainstay producers Stargate and Curtis “Sauce” Wilson (to name a couple) completed his brand with a nod to the charm of classic Motown and Luther, but a solid astuteness of of present-day sonic structures.
The sweet frankness of Ne-Yo’s early hits like “When You’re Mad” and “Miss Independent” cemented his prime position as a “gentleman” (to borrow from the title of his third album) purveyor of sophisticated, contemporary soul. But after the stateside commercial disappointment of 2010’s Libra Scale, the artistic weight started tipping a bit. Following his appointment as senior vice-president of A&R at his then-new label home, Motown, he began attempting self-consciously to straddle the line between the cultivated balladry which he’d built his career on and the more street-savvy tendencies of younger artists under the urban-contemporary umbrella. While he managed to do this without alienating many fans on 2012’s R.E.D., the case was different with 2015’s Non-Fiction, a refashioning of himself as a hard R&B artist perfectly content to infiltrate his compositions with derogatory raps towards women and disappointingly unoriginal “instrumentation,” which made his earlier repertoire seem fraudulent.
Despite a notable appearance in NBC’s live television production of The Wiz, which showed his potential to expand his terrain as a multi-faceted performer, and two singles in 2017 (“Earn your Love” and “Another Love Song”— promoted as being from his new album, but, sadly, nowhere to be found on the finished product), which indicated promise of a return to more lyrically chivalrous and musically full-bodied territory, he’s once again found himself at a crossroads on Good Man. Certainly, the end result is more gratifying than Non-Fiction; and from the angle of modern-day R&B standards, the record is miles above recent releases by artists such as Trey Songz and Tank in its level of listener engagement. But fans longing for the sensitive sensibilities employed in the words and arrangements of his first few records are still likely to be left longing for better days.
Where Non-Fiction was permeated with monotone raps droning out the few ounces of melody that Ne-Yo kept intact, Good Man only has a few close calls of the like. The first half of the album is undoubtedly targeted at part of the teenage/young adult demographic more taken with beats and party lifestyle-driven lyrics than thoughtfully constructed arrangements and storylines of real consequence. The events of the opening “1 More Shot” are, indeed, set in a bar rather than the course of a relationship. “LA Nights” finds Ne-Yo musing repeatedly about “shawty jeans fit tight out here,” being “high as a kite out here,” and “smoke good all day, all night out here” before delving into the familiar tale of “the whole crew…it all got comfortable in the coupe.” Bleh. It’s so frustrating that an artist of his caliber is resorting to this dumbed-down scenario, much less setting it to a boorish programmed beat with no umphh.
The second half of Good Man, though, finds Ne-Yo treading more stable musical ground. It feels like the material herein was part of the original plan for the album, before last year’s singles were chucked and replaced with “Push Back,” a mediocre number about grinding on the dance floor, and the rhythmically snail-paced, verbally conceited “Breathe.” Whereas those entries likely possess no semblance of most of his core audience’s notions of a “Good Man,” the subtly carried out “Hotbox” unwinds with a few poetic lines here and there which hint at Ne-Yo’s humbler side. Eric Bellinger’s verse doesn’t add much to the mix; but overall, it’s a smooth ride. Meanwhile, the Stargate-helmed midtempo selection “Without U” holds fitting melodic patterns and arrangement aspects for the melancholy lyrics.
There are several tracks on Good Man which effectively mesh Ne-Yo’s purer musical origins with a soundscape relevant to today’s trendy playlists. On “Apology,” he laments his past being “a boy who was supposed to be a man” despite how his mom “taught me way better.” Darhyl Camper’s production is steady and peppers the straightforward story with enticing rhythms and keyboard riffs. Then, “Ocean Sure” is a welcome display of Ne-Yo’s ingratiating falsetto atop metaphorical reflections of his standing with his ideal woman. Cirkut and MADE IN CHINA’s cutting-edge programming, combined with Sam Hook’s penetrating choruses and Candice Boyd’s adornments towards the song’s close, make it the song most likely on the album to resonate equally well with both his original fan base and new recruits.
As for the closing title track (and current single), it’s a well-executed performance of clearly intentioned passages which would make just as much sense if situated as the album’s opener. Despite its lack of musical originality—the cut is built on the foundation of D’Angelo’s “Untitled (How Does It Feel)”—Ne-Yo sounds at home in the soulful, slightly bluesy melody lines and sincere in his sentiments. It’s a reminder of how much more of a welcome return Good Man would have been had he stayed the course of the themes explored in “Earn Your Love” and “Another Love Song” (both musically and lyrically) instead of veering off into over-simplified “down” stories and half-baked background music on a handful of occasions.
The three tracks on Target’s exclusive edition (and the Japan pressing) of the CD—“Pour Me Up,” “Won’t Be Often,” and “Reset the Night”—are further examples of the more modest, more heartful side of Ne-Yo to which he has started to find his way back. Let’s hope he can be more content with his strengths next time around in order to present a set that is more authentic all around. In the meantime, Good Man is an indication that he can still deliver real gems when he puts his mind to it. Moderately recommended.
by Justin Kantor