Ne-Yo on Today's Pop Hits: 'There's Simple and Then There's Stupid' (Q&A)

His first and last hit have the same name ("Let Me Love You") and it's no coincidence, says the R&B singer, in-demand songwriter and A&R executive.
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These days, the fact that multiple titles accompany Ne-Yo’s name is entirely fitting of a singer who’s truly become pop-R&B royalty. Over a decade after being dropped by one storied major label (Columbia), he’s now running the A&R department of another (Motown) while simultaneously racking up hits for everyone from Pitbull (“Give Me Everything”) to Young Jeezy (“Leave You Alone”). At the same time, Ne-Yo is notching Top 10 singles for himself. Most recently, “Let Me Love You,” a tune he co-wrote with Sia that’s currently No. 24 on Billboard’s Hot 100.

Curiously, his career started with a song of the same name, which spent nine weeks at No. 1. “I don't believe in coincidence or accidents,” he says. “Clearly somebody in heaven thought she and I were supposed to write together and ‘Let Me Love You’ was the end result.” Indeed, for Ne-Yo, it’s all about gut reaction when it comes to launching a hit -- from his decision whether to hold onto a song or give it to another artist (“The song kind of picks its own owner,” Ne-Yo says with Zen-like clarity, admitting it also comes down to who’s paying for studio time) to coming up with that undeniable hook. Says Ne-Yo: “Think about Psy’s ‘Gangnam Style’ -- that song isn't even in English! But there's something about it that makes you get up and want to do the damn dance! The way a song makes you feel is what makes a hit.”

THR: How do you decide whether to keep a song or to give it to another artist?

Ne-Yo: There are a couple of different ways [to decide]. If an artist comes to me and asks me to be a part of their project and then pays for studio time, within that time, whatever song is produced, by law it's supposed to go to that artist. Another way it happens is if I'm in the studio working for the sheer joy of doing what I do and I come up with something that sounds great but doesn't necessarily fit me, that's when I have the luxury of calling certain artists [to say], “Yo, I just did something that would be dope for you.” If it does fit me, then I keep it for myself.

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THR:  “Let Me Love You,” your most recent hit, you wrote with Sia. How did that collaboration come about?

Ne-Yo: Sia somehow met up with Stargate and they put together a track. She had already written the hook. So I just came behind her and wrote the verses and the rest of it and then that's how it came to be. I don't normally do a lot of co-writes but I have huge respect for Sia as an artist -- she has a voice that’s super soulful -- as well as a songwriter. I was trying to work with her for a long time before this happened. And because of scheduling, it just didn't permit it. … Sia comes from that school that makes you think a little bit -- in a way that triggers something in you as opposed to flat out saying it. That's what she does with her lyrics. The thought-provoking lyric is few and far between nowadays. From the point of view as songwriters and artists, it seems the consumer is getting dumber. So the songs being made are super-duper dumb and simple. Like there's simple and then there's stupid.

THR: You have an A&R position now. Does that further complicate deciding which songs go where?

Ne-Yo:  It would if it was a job that I had to do by myself. I have to give props to the Motown team -- the A&R people over there who have been doing it much longer than I have and are accepting of me and willing to show me the ropes. So I am highly appreciative of the team -- and just the fact that it is a team, it's not a bunch of crabs in a bucket trying to claw over each other to get to the top. Everybody's helping and giving it our best to add something to the Motown legacy.

THR: Who first approached you for the gig?

Ne-Yo: Barry Weiss, who took LA Reid's place over at Def Jam, came to me and started talking about the revitalization of Motown. He thought my input would be instrumental in doing so. Motown was that name which was known for quality music -- not necessarily soul music or black music or white music. Everybody was into the Motown sound. And I guess Barry and the guys over there felt that's kind of the line that I tow in that I can do an R&B song or I can do a song with a hard core rapper and then turn around and do a song with an EDM DJ and all those songs make sense on the same album. …

That’s not to say that Motown is going to dabble in EDM but it's finding that common thread between R&B lovers, dance lovers, whatever the case may be -- that common thread that ties everybody together into “Oh my God, I just love this song.” That's what I'm trying to bring to Motown.

THR: Your first hit was Mario's “Let Me Love You” in 2004 and now you have your own song with the same name?

Ne-Yo: Absolutely. I don't believe in coincidence or accidents. Things happen because they're supposed to.

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THR: You’ve been a featured artist on so many songs -- from Pitbull’s “Give Me Everything” to Young Jeezy’s “Leave You Alone” -- how do you choose which guest appearances to say yes to?

Ne-Yo: For me it's about trying to do something great. I know that sounds cliche and middle-of-the-road but that's the truth. The goal is to least attempt to do something that's gonna outlive us. Like the last feature I did was with Young Jeezy: the average person on the outside looking in would not ever see me and Young Jeezy doing a song together. He’s a hardcore rapper. His world and his audience might not necessarily be mine and vice versa. But we found a common thread that made sense for both of us and the song came together and it turned out to be a hit. So it's about finding that thing that will stand out and be more than just another song on the radio.

THR: If someone wants to co-write with you, is there a wait?

Ne-Yo:I am a slave to my schedule. Right now, my free time is exceptionally limited because we’re rehearsing for a tour in March. So that takes up a good twelve hours of the day. And then the other twelve is spent in the studio. It's a very precise juggling act that I'm putting on here. That being said, if a person is willing to be patient and they really, truly want to work with me, I will guarantee that when we get in the studio, I’ll give 150 percent and it will be worth the wait.

THR: Where's the strangest place you've heard one of your songs?

Ne-Yo:  I've heard my songs played in men's rooms, in elevators, at restaurants -- that's not very strange, but it is awkward to be sitting there, eating, and then all of a sudden your song comes on and anybody in the restaurant that did recognize you, now they're gonna point you out. So what was supposed to be a simple 30-minute lunch turns into an a 90-minute autograph signing session, which I really don't have a problem with. I appreciate it because, take it the other way around, when nobody wants your autograph or a picture, that's when things are bad.

Twitter: @THRMusic