Tuesday, Feb. 3, 2009 | 2 a.m.
Ne-Yo - Because of You
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Beyond the Sun
If you grew up known in your high school cafeteria as “that weird kid,” it’s got to be a pleasure to come home with a bit of success under your belt.
Coming home is a lot more fun when you return with a No. 1-selling album, six Grammy Award nominations and a top-of-the-bill gig at the Pearl at the Palms.
Ask Ne-Yo — the artist formerly known as Shaffer Smith when he went to Rancho High School in Las Vegas — who kicks off his first tour as a headliner in his hometown Thursday. After that, he’ll be in Los Angeles for a pair of dates at the hot Club Nokia, and then he takes his seat Sunday at the Grammys, where his competition includes Jay-Z and Kanye West, each of whom also has six nominations.
“That’s right, Las Vegas is home,” says Ne-Yo, 29, calling from London, where he’s winding up his tour as the opening act for the Pussycat Dolls. “And I’m gonna be 100 percent honest with you right now, man. This is my first time headlining a tour. So there’s a little bit of nervousness in me behind it. As the supporting act, you’re kind of the underdog. People expect you to do well, but if you don’t, it’s not as bad because it’s not your show. When you’re the headliner, you’re ending the show and it’s all on you. I can’t even begin to half-step. And especially — especially — not at home.”
So the always dapper Ne-Yo promises to bring his “A-plus-plus game,” which won’t be hard, as he’ll be drawing largely from his superb second album, “Year of the Gentleman,” which blends melodic, lushly produced R&B and pop like no one since “Off The Wall”-era Michael Jackson, whom Ne-Yo proudly counts as a big influence on his singing, songwriting and arranging.
The swanky sound and snappy sartorial style of Las Vegas made an impression on the young Ne-Yo, who was 9 years old when he moved here from Arkansas with his mother, Loraine, whom he calls “my personal hero.”
Loraine Burts worked at the casinos, “four or five jobs at a time, from a Keno runner to a cocktail waitress to a dealer, to make sure we never needed anything,” Ne-Yo says.
“And musically, anything she was into, I was into. So after she started working in the casinos, she started getting into that big band sound, with Tom Jones and Wayne Newton. She introduced me to Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr., the Rat Pack. My mom says I was born in the wrong era. I just attached myself to that effortless cool, which is rare even today.”
Ne-Yo is keen to talk about the difference he felt as a student at Las Vegas Academy of International Studies, Performing and Visual Arts, and at Rancho High, from which he graduated.
“You know what Las Vegas Academy did for me? It showed me that it was OK to be an individual. And that’s something that you wouldn’t expect to get from a high school. It was accepting of whoever the hell you were.
“Now over to Rancho, not so much. Not. So. Much,” Ne-Yo says and chuckles ruefully. “Night and day” is how he describes the transfer to Rancho after his junior year, and it sounds as if those high school injuries are still a bit raw.
“I was the new kid for a minute, and then once they realize that you’re not the typical new kid, OK, here comes the ridicule, and this group of guys who thinks that it would be cool to pick on you. It was my senior year, so I wasn’t letting it go down like that. But it kind of made me feel bad for the kids that were there, because you kinda weren’t allowed to be who you were at that school.”
Now, Ne-Yo says, he tends to look at the Rancho year as boot camp for the music industry, which he calls “very, very clique-ish. It’s a popularity contest.” Extending the comparison between the pop world and high school, Ne-Yo figures he sits at the head of the songwriters’ table in the lunchroom.
“Even here, for one second, I almost let it get to me,” he says. “I could dwell on that fact, you know, that I’ve never been on the cover of Vibe magazine or Rolling Stone with all the accomplishments that I have.
“I had to go back to what I learned at Las Vegas Academy: Be who you are, and excel in your lane. And that’s what I do. I get respect and attention where it counts: Never been on the cover of People magazine, but I got nominated for six Grammys this year.”
Those nominations include Album of the Year and Best Contemporary R&B Album for “Year Of The Gentleman,” Best Male Pop Vocal Performance for “Closer” and Best Male R&B Vocal Performance; and in the songwriter category, Best R&B Song for “Miss Independent,” and for “Spotlight,” recorded by Jennifer Hudson.
Oddly enough, Ne-Yo wasn’t studying music at the Academy — he was there for visual arts, drawing and painting. In fact, no one even knew he could sing.
“I was — not ashamed — but scared to sing for people who weren’t my family,” he says. “I don’t think anybody in high school even knew that I could do it. It was the one place where I was afraid of judgment from other people.”
Ne-Yo nurtured his secret talents in his room. “I would write songs in my little notebook, sing ’em back to myself and then put my notebook under my bed until I felt the need to do it again.”
And then — just like in the movie that will undoubtedly be made of Ne-Yo’s life — came the school talent show at the Las Vegas Academy.
“Everybody was making such a big deal about it, and my goal was to go up to make a fool of myself and lighten everybody up,” Ne-Yo says. “It’s a school talent show — relax.”
He took the stage with a Boyz II Men song, “End of the Road.”
“I just kinda got lost in the moment,” he remembers, “and just really belted the song, as opposed to going up there and acting silly like I was gonna do. And I ended the song to no applause. Like, the whole crowd was just kinda standing there with their mouths gaping open, like ‘where the hell did that come from?’ ”
Ne-Yo admits that he surprised himself, too.
“That was my first little clue of ‘OK, maybe you got a little something with this whole music thing.’ ”