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Ne-Yo Discusses Fifth Album, Fatherhood and New Cartoon

Kevin Winter, Getty Images

Over the past half-decade, few artists have loomed as large in the worlds of pop and R&B as Ne-Yo. Born Shaffer Smith, the Arkansas native joined his first R&B group, Envy, while still in his teens. When they broke up, he honed his skills by writing songs for other artists. By the time he released his solo debut, ‘In My Own Words,’ in early 2006, Ne-Yo was a musical forced to be reckoned with.

Since then, not only has he racked up a string of his own hits — ‘So Sick,’ ‘Because of You,’ ‘Miss Independent’ and ‘Closer,’ to name a few — but he has continued working as a writer and producer with such high profile artists as Beyonce, Mario, Jennifer Hudson and even Celine Dion.

In March, Ne-Yo returned from a trip to Japan, where he has an extremely loyal fan base — his greatest hits package, ‘Ne-Yo: The Collection,’ was released there exclusively in 2009. While overseas, he launched a campaign to help victims of last month’s massive earthquake and tsunami by designing his own “Spread Love Through Music” t-shirts. Available now in black, white and red, proceeds from the sales of these shirts will benefit people in Japan who are struggling to put their lives back together after the recent tragedy.

The BoomBox recently caught up with Ne-Yo to discuss not only his experiences in Japan but a bunch of other projects he has in the works. The man is nothing if not busy. His 2008 album was called ‘Year of the Gentleman’ but it looks like 2011 may just be the year of Ne-Yo.

I wanted to start by asking you about this new initiative for Japan involving T-shirts, with proceeds to benefit the victims of the tsunami.

Yeah, the campaign we started while we [were in Japan]. We did about a week out there, doing shows and whatnot. It initially started out as just something we just wanted to put on the donation box. We had some construction paper and some markers and I wrote “Spread love through music,” with a heart in the place of the word “love” and a music sign in place of the word “music” — you know, just to make it more universal. They dug it enough to [think] it was a good idea to put it on a T-shirt. So we put it on a T-shirt. We sold them at the shows and all the proceeds go directly to victims of the quake and the tsunami. We raised somewhere in the ballpark of a $100,000.

The T-shirts are currently on sale on my website — yearofthegentleman.com is my website. Also, neyothegentleman.com. Either one of those should have a link going directly to where you can get the shirts.

Tell me a little about your time in Japan. What your experience was specifically with some of the people that have lost things in the tsunami?

Mind you, the shows that we had set up were scheduled before the tragedy happened. So when we first heard about the disaster, of course some people were a little skeptical. I never felt like, “OK, we’re not going.” I felt like, “OK, let’s do the research. Let’s not depend on the newspapers or whatever, let’s really do the research ourselves and figure out what’s gonna be safe and what’s not. You know, if it’s impossible for us to go, alright. But if we can get over there, let’s get over there.”

So as it turns out, we only had one show that was in the danger zone, which is Tokyo — you know, with the radiation. That’s the one show that we didn’t get a chance to do. [But] even that show, we just postponed it, we didn’t cancel it. We did four cities. The shows went over fantastic. Spirits were high. Just about every show we did, there were people in the audience that either lost family members or [friends]. I took it upon myself to learn one or two phrases in Japanese to let people know that my heart goes out to them [and] to keep their heads up. I didn’t do it for the recognition or for the story, I did it because I felt like it was necessary. At a time of tragedy, people need a reason to smile — something to take their mind off what’s going on, even if only for a second. That was the purpose of going over there. And I decided while I’m over there, I might as well use my influence to raise some money for these people. It’s one thing to put a smile on somebody’s face, it’s another thing to put some money in their hands to help them start their life over or whatever the case may be.

It reminds me a little bit when musicians came out after September 11 to perform.

On a personal note, you became a father recently, right?

Yeah, I have a 5-month-old little girl that’s getting bigger and louder by the day! Her name is Madilyn Grace and she’s the love of my life, man. You know, I’ve been in love with women before; I know what that feels like. This is something completely different. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done. It was a little scary at first. I didn’t know what kind of dad I was gonna be but I think I’m doing alright if I do say so myself.

You’re also in a new film, ‘Battle: Los Angeles.’ From what I hear, you trained pretty hard for that.

Yeah, we had about a two or three-week stint with real live Marines! To say the least, it was hell. It gave me a whole new respect for the armed forces, period. In reality, I don’t think that I could hack it. [Even with] all the confidence in the world, I don’t think I could hack it. The drill sergeant that we had, you know, they didn’t treat us like actors, they treated us like real occupants. But I will say this: it was the best shape that I’ve ever been in in my life!

So you were getting up early in the morning and stuff like that?

Oh man! Up at five [AM], jogging three, four, five, six miles. Then we’d do calisthenics. You know, learning how to take the gun apart, put it back together, how to clean the gun, shooting practice — the whole nine. They say that normally [there's] a six-month training period for the Marines. But they had to cram six months into three weeks for us — and they definitely made it count!

I can’t even imagine. Can you tell me a little about working with actress Michelle Rodriguez?

Michelle Rodriguez is one of the few women on the planet who can pull off tough and sexy at the same time. You feel like if you were to get into an actual fistfight with her that she just might give you a run for your money. She definitely is the kind of girl that gives that off. But at the same time, she’s a very beautiful woman. She’s 100 percent professional. Anything that I didn’t know how to do, all I had to do was look to Michelle or Aaron Eckhart and I was alright.

You’ve worked with a lot of people in the last few years. What musician haven’t you worked with that you’d still like to work with?

There’s a list a mile long! I’ve been on an indie thing as of [late]. [There are] a lot of independent artists out there that I really dig. Diane Birch is somebody that I’ve been listening to a lot lately. Adele‘s been doing a lot of things. She’s incredible. Zero 7, Air, Brazilian Girls — this is the stuff that I’ve been listening to a lot and I think it would be cool to get in the studio
with some of these artists.

Anything else that you have in store?

My fifth album is on the way. I felt like I had to drop something relatively quickly behind ‘Libra Scale’ because [that album] went over some people’s heads. This next album, there will be no complicated concept or story line, it’s just about good music.

Look out for ‘I Heart Tuesdays,’ which is my cartoon that The Cartoon Network just closed on. It’s not a cartoon about me; it’s about a very shallow, rich, 16-year-old brat who, through a curse on her bloodline, is forced to save the world on Tuesdays for the rest of her life.

Also, I have a hat line that will be in stores relatively soon. What else, what else… Oh, one more thing: The movie ‘Red Tails’ directed by George Lucas. Cuba Gooding Jr.’s in it, Terrence Howard’s in it, I’m in it. It’s the story of the Tuskegee Airmen. That will be out next year.

–Dave Steinfeld

Watch Ne-Yo’s ‘Beautiful Monster’
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