x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

R&B spawns its first songwriter for years in the shape of Ne-Yo

In an R&B world where sonic novelty has come to be valued ahead of intrinsic artistic quality, the singer-songwriter Ne-Yo stands out as a beacon of hope.

The singer-songwriter Ne-Yo is in Dubai this weekend.
The singer-songwriter Ne-Yo is in Dubai this weekend.

It is tough for modern American rhythm and blues artists to establish any sense of authenticity these days. However, 31-year-old Ne-Yo, playing in Dubai's Chi Lodge on Sunday, possesses a rare quality.

He is an actual songwriter.

The fact that this undeniable talent sets him apart from his peers tells you a lot about the current crop of R&B artists. It hasn't always been that way. The balance between experimentation and songwriting detail, which were the hallmarks of the classic R&B of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, has been replaced with the relentless sonic quest by modern producers and artists for the latest "hot sound".

This shift from songwriting to sound quality resulted in some of the biggest hits of modern R&B, such as Usher's Yeah! and Chris Brown's Run It, being nothing more than an incessant series of catchy bleeps, synths and repetitive chorus.

The story of R&B has been one of evolution since 1955, when the music promoter Thurman Ruth persuaded those at the helm of Harlem's Apollo Theatre, then dominated by jazz acts, to stage its first-ever gospel performance.

In the 1960s, gospel music's sibling genre, soul music, dominated the charts with the likes of Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and the Motown Records music label.

The 1970s proved that soul could also hold sway on the dance floor with Barry White and Donna Summer releasing disco hits. Of course this was all before artists such as Michael Jackson and Prince took R&B and its musical offspring to their creative and financial zenith.

In the late 1990s, however, this creative momentum faltered, and artists and producers began taking their cues from the mainstream rap explosion. The horns and funk that carried the soulful vocals were jettisoned for harder hip-hop beats and guest rappers became a regular feature of R&B albums.

Meanwhile, more traditional R&B artists were shunted to the underground and their shtick was reclassified as neo-soul. This is why the growing success of Ne-Yo is important: his hits prove that it is still possible for modern R&B to produce quality singer-songwriters.

Born Shaffer Chimere Smith Jr in Arkansas to an African-American father and a Chinese-American mother, Ne-Yo was involved in music from his high-school years, forming the boy-band Envy.

After Envy disbanded, he decided to stay in the industry and make a name as a songwriter, and it was his songwriting collaborations with the Norwegian production team Stargate that turned heads and resulted in hits for Rihanna such as Unfaithful and Take a Bow.

Buoyed by the success, Ne-Yo released his debut album, appositely titled In My Own Words, spawning four hits, including So Sick.

Suddenly, music critics found themselves in the rare position of praising a modern R&B record for its songwriting quality rather than simply its cutting-edge beats.

Ne-Yo then began concentrating fully on his solo career and produced four albums in as many years. His second, 2007's Because of You, won the Grammy for best contemporary R&B album, while its follow-ups the Year of the Gentleman and Libra Scale both produced hits, including Closer and Beautiful Monster, both of which topped the UK charts.

During that spell he also scored his biggest triumph as a songwriter, co-penning with Beyoncé Irreplaceable in 2006. That song was a chart-topper in America and Europe and is considered one of the R&B diva's signature songs.

Ne-Yo told USA Today his attention to songwriting was his own attempt to bring back the songwriting aesthetics lost in modern R&B.

"People just forgot what it was supposed to be, what it was supposed to feel like, the essence of what it is," he said. "It's a vibe, it's a feeling - it's supposed to make you feel something, as opposed to, 'Let me go eeh-eeh-eeh-eeh-eeh and put a beat behind it and see if people will dance to it.' Come on man. There's more to it than that."

Here's hoping his forthcoming Dubai show and his fifth album, Love and Passion, to be released this year, continue to preserve that essence.

Ne-Yo is playing at Chi in Dubai on Sunday. Tickets are Dh250 and Dh350. Visit chinightclubdubai.com for details.