Friday, October 10, 2008

A sweet, mild-voiced crooner, Ne-Yo was best enjoyed in singles. "Sexy Love" topped my 2006 list, and "Because of You" came up one notch short of doing the same last year. Co-written with the Norwegian team Stargate, these exquisitely upholstered songs nevertheless were as basic and fleet as MINI Coopers. They said what they meant, incrementally elaborating on lyrical tags atop pizzicato harp and thwackety percussion. In My Own Words was hits-plus-filler, though, and Because of You more so. I had no expectations for Year of the Gentlemen, especially after first single "Closer" irritated me.

But in this case, "no expectations" prepared me for "surpassed expectations."Not only is YOTG his best album, it's one of the most assured R&B albums of the decade (this review was encouraging). By honing his lyrics and vocals to the restraint of the Stargate productions, Ne-Yo comes damn close to recording the modern equivalent of a Smokey Robinson and the Miracles album. His wordplay isn't particularly clever, but he's mastered a way of adapting a shopworn phrase so that it illuminates an unpredictable situation -- the situations in which all lovers convince themselves that no one else has been in them. Ne-Yo says what he means and then some; he's the gentlest, most pliant love man around. He avoids bathos by virtue of the unstinting precision of his singing and writing. In "Mad" and "Fade in the Background," he's passive without being a pushover. "Why Does She Stay" asks a question that implicates the interlocutor as much as the subject. But he's a horny bastard: "Single" presents a challenge that makes you worry about her endurance. Only "Stop This World" gets goopy.

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