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R&B singer Ne-Yo gets the last laugh

NEW YORK (Billboard) - In a small office overlooking Manhattan, R&B singer/songwriter Ne-Yo reflects on his recent career growth.

R&B artist Ne-Yo speaks at a news conference announcing the nominees for the BET Awards 2006 in Hollywood May 16, 2006. Ne-Yo, once derailed when he was dropped by Columbia Records, is no joke these days. Most folks now know him as a recording star. REUTERS/Phil McCarten

“I’m kind of important,” Ne-Yo jokes, in a mock deep voice that emulates newsman Ron Burgundy, played to such spectacular ridiculousness in the movie “Anchorman” by Will Ferrell. “People know me.”

“I swear, me and my friends just sit around quoting ‘Anchorman,’ ‘Nacho Libre’ and ‘Napoleon Dynamite.’ Those three movies are so funny.”

Ne-Yo might be laughing at himself, but his career -- once derailed when he was dropped by Columbia Records -- is no joke these days. Most folks now know him as a recording star. His debut album for Def Jam, “In My Own Words,” moved 301,000 copies in its first week last February and 1.4 million to date, and showcased his deft songwriting touch. He crafted his own heartbreak into the song “So Sick,” which spent two weeks at No. 1 on The Billboard Hot 100. When his second album, “Know Me,” comes out April 24, few are predicting a slump.

At least in some part, this is due to Ne-Yo’s impressive strength as a songwriter. What most in the industry have come to know, fans are just realizing: Ne-Yo is off to a prolific start as a go-to R&B hit writer. Two of his hits, Beyonce’s “Irreplaceable” and Mario’s “Let Me Love You,” have spent a combined 19 weeks at No. 1 on the Hot 100. Now A-listers like Britney Spears, Celine Dion, Alicia Keys, Jennifer Hudson, Chris Brown, Nicole Sherzinger and Whitney Houston are all clamoring for a Ne-Yo track. And he’s busy writing them.

That might be his biggest problem.

“Artists like Usher are dying to work with him and in a way that’s like Ne-Yo competing with himself,” says Jennifer Blakeman, who represents Ne-Yo at Zomba Music Publishing. “So we have to help him figure out what songs to keep and which songs to give other people.”

It’s a nice problem to have.

If Ne-Yo’s songs of love and loss connect with the ladies, it may be because he has so much experience -- not the nympho sort as suggested in a Vibe article last year, but rather a far more wholesome type. Born in Arkansas, Ne-Yo was raised by his mother, aunts and grandmother after his father left. That estrogen-filled childhood still gives him inspiration for his hit songs.

“When I wrote ‘Unfaithful,’ I just remembered when my auntie broke up with (her man) Troy,” Ne-Yo says, pulling a scenario from the air. “All the ‘F--- that man!’? I was there for all of that.”

His success is now breeding more success. The ubiquity of “Irreplaceable” piqued the interest of Celine Dion.

“For someone like Celine, it’s about writing a song that’s timeless,” Ne-Yo says. “It’s not about convincing people that you’re younger than you are.”

Ne-Yo’s also writing for Whitney Houston, and once again looking to buck expectations.

“They played me about eight tracks that were all very ‘I’m Whitney and I’ve been through some things and now I’m triumphant,”’ Ne-Yo says. “But you can only do that for so long, so I said I’ll do the same thing for Whitney that I’m doing for Celine, which is to bring them to the everyday person.”

And while working with all of these stars has been a great experience, Ne-Yo says, at least one recently shorn starlet might want to read the following as even more inspiration to get her personal life in order.

“We set up no less than four sessions for Britney to just come and listen to the songs I wrote for her,” Ne-Yo says. “She never showed up. I think they want me to hold these songs that I’ve written until she finishes going through her thing. But a couple might be perfect for the Pussycat Dolls’ Nicole Sherzinger, so . . .”

Ne-Yo is about to see if he still has the right touch on his own tracks, with the release of “Know Me.” His first single, “Because of You,” is an ode to Michael Jackson, one of Ne-Yo’s favorite singers. The layered vocals on the bridge are reminiscent of the hooks littered throughout Jackson’s “Off the Wall” album.

Another memorable moment -- both for Ne-Yo, as well as on the album -- comes in the form of a Jennifer Hudson duet. Usually he writes his hits alone in a studio, but for “Leaving,” the Academy Award winner showed up with a few girlfriends, memorized the lyrics in 15 minutes -- and proceeded to sing Ne-Yo under the table.

“To be an artist is to crave acceptance, so it’s difficult to tell people things sometimes,” Ne-Yo says. “You almost have to take a back seat to the artist, especially if they’ve had a little bit of success. But by the grace of God, Jennifer Hudson is still normal. When I asked her to bring out a note, or change something, it was done. She out-sung me on my own song. It’s Jennifer Hudson featuring Ne-Yo.”