The hit songs Ne-Yo writes for others are positively bursting with emotion — the defiant pride portrayed by Beyoncé in ”Irreplaceable,” the agonizing guilt displayed by Rihanna in ”Unfaithful.” Yet on his own Grammy-nominated 2006 debut, he came across as oddly guarded.
Ne-Yo’s second album, by contrast, makes it very clear what’s on his mind: Michael Jackson. Executive producer Jay-Z gets right to the point, rapping, ”Ne-Yo’s like young Michael/I’m Quincy Hov” (”Crazy”). Indeed, the album is an unmistakable attempt to channel Jackson’s early Quincy Jones-helmed LPs — and the effort often pays off beautifully. Because of You’s polished string sections and muted horns could have been recorded in 1979, but they sound elegant, not dated. And Ne-Yo’s lithe falsetto puts the countless others who’ve been dubbed Jackson-esque to shame. His lyrics have a gentlemanly feel that’s reminiscent of Thriller-era Jackson too: ”Leaving Tonight,” his lovely brink-of-a-breakup duet with Jennifer Hudson, unfolds as a civil dialogue in the vein of MJ’s ”The Girl Is Mine.”
Unlike Jackson, Ne-Yo sometimes lets his polite style shade into stiffness. But when he finally gives his id room to breathe on ”Say It” and ”Sex With My Ex,” he shows he can handle racy themes and aggressive beats without dumbing down or sleazing up his songwriting. Hopefully next time he’ll feel ready to take a few more risks. B+