Thursday, June 26, 2008

Year of the Gentlemen

As a big fan of popular music, it's always a kick to watch an artist grow before your eyes. Today's R&B has been struggling for the past few years, generally seen as a poor cousin of (the not totally robust) hip-hop, relegated to thick robotic drumbeats, guest rappers, indistinguishable melodies and forgettable lyrics.

Of course there are those artists who break through, Alicia Keys, Jill Scott and John Legend are among those who have strived to breathe new life into the tried and true traditions of the best of R&B. One of the more interesting newcomers is Ne-yo, a young twenty-something writer/singer/producer who's made hits for a galaxy of artists and embarked on a solo career a couple of years ago. Blessed with a clear tenor, a great sense of melody and hooks for days, Ne-yo has shown the potential to be a memorable artist if he could get out of aping Michael Jackson like a religious experience. All of that changed with the 2008 BET Awards.

I hadn't been to an awards show in several years, generally finding them tedious with more concentration on spectacle than music and performance. I went to the BET Awards this year largely because Al Green was being presented with a lifetime achievement award and was due to be serenaded by Jill Scott, Anthony Hamilton and the unannounced return of Maxwell. Alas, Jill struggled, Anthony did 'Tired of Being Alone' proud and Maxwell missed an opportunity, with a lackluster interpretation of 'Simply Beautiful'. Al Green hopped onstage and performed loud, off-key versions of 'Let's Stay Together' and 'Love and Happiness'. It wasn't one of his best nights, but he had so much energy and enthusiasm, the crowd embraced him with a lot of love and appreciation.

Earlier in the evening, Ne-yo was introduced by host DL Hughley and he performed 'Closer', the new single from his upcoming album, 'Year of the Gentleman'. Smartly attired in a hat, three piece suit and gloves, Ne-yo was in great voice, the song was melodic with a clean, uptempo dance beat and a hard to forget hook.

Throughout the performance, Ne-yo upped his dance game, leaving (for the most part) MJ behind, and carving out a more sophisticated but still funky dance style that he confidently executed all over the stage. When the tune was over, Ne-yo got one of the evening's few standing ovations and staked a claim as most improved performer of the year.

The album is due August 5th, and focuses on more of a pop sound that marries the beat and rhythm of today's R&B , with a rare understanding of song construction. For my money, 'Year of the Gentleman' is the album that I'm expecting to send Ne-yo to the front ranks of today's popular artists. Even if he comes up a bit short, he's making big strides in the right direction.

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