The vibe last Wednesday night (March 21) at New York City’s Liberty Theater was a sexy one. Soft red lights lit the venue, which was filled with industry cats and model chicks anxious to get a sip of Malibu’s new tequila-flavored rum, Malibu Red. The potion, created and refined by Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Ne-Yo, made its debut last week. In a black blazer, his trademark fedora, sunglasses, and red slacks, Ne-Yo schmoozed with the guests, then hopped stage to perform “Closer” and a few of his other hits.
Red isn’t the only new venture Ne-Yo has signed up for recently, though. As of last January, the Island Def Jam artist is Senior Vice President of A&R at Motown Records, tasked with trying to revive the house that Berry Gordy built to its Hitsville days.
Just before hitting the Liberty Theater stage, Ne-Yo checked in with Complex to talk about his liquor endorsement, his new album, and why he’s not checking his artistic integrity at the door of his Motown office.
Written by Brad Wete (@BradWete)
What’s the feedback you’re getting from people who have tasted Malibu Red?
People are digging it, man. I have yet to receive a negative report about it. Everybody is liking it, everybody is realizing its one of those drinks that will sneak up on you if you ain’t careful. The thing about about it is is that it’s not as sweet as a rum. But it doesn't bite as much as a tequila. It sits comfortably right in the middle of that. It’s a drink that you’ll drink it and not realize it and before you know it, you done fell over. You have to be careful with it. It's definitely a party starter.
Why did you choose to partner with Malibu? Vodka seems to be the go-to liquor.
Well, from a personal standpoint, when I first started drinking—at the legal age when a person starts drinking, of course—I started with Malibu. Malibu and pineapple juice. I had to get accustomed to the taste of alcohol. Most people don’t drink alcohol because it tastes good. I need something that at least tasted kind of good to where I could feel it, too.
As I got older, I realized I needed something with a little more kick, so what we would always do, we would grab the Malibu and put some tequila to give it a little more of that loud effect. So we were drinking it like that for a little while and somebody said to us one day, “Yo, y’all might really have something. Y’all should holler at some people at Malibu and see what more come from this.”
Sure enough, that’s what we did and they were all for it. They gave me the Chief Creative Consultant title, something like that. Some flashy title where they gave me super control on everything going on the design, bottle and the mix is properly right. The mix gotta be right. It can’t be too much rum, can’t be too much tequila. It’s got to be the perfect mix of both to fall right into that comfort zone. That’s pretty much what it is—let me run the show. I was all for it.
I personally think if you need to get [a girl] drunk to get her to do something, you ain’t doing what you suppose to do. That doesn’t exemplify your swag.
When you were a dating man, how much did liquor play a role in your evening plans?
I wasn’t ever that dude. “I’m gonna get ’em drunk so that girl will go on a date.” I was never that guy. I personally think if you need to get her drunk to get her to do something, you ain’t doing what you suppose to do. That doesn’t exemplify your swag. That don’t show you got no game. So, drinks played a part, but not much. It was about getting nice as opposed to let her get sloppy and wild out. That was what I always wasn’t about.
You’re an artist, writer, and producer—now you’ve added Vice President at Motown to your resume. How is that job treating you?
It's treating me real good, man. Much respect to the Universal family for even feeling I could do something like this. That’s a lot of responsibility they are putting on my shoulders; at the same time it’s nothing I can’t handle. There’s a whole advantage being an executive as an artist. As I’m learning to dance, they are being patient with me in the process. But in the grand scheme of things. I feel like they gave me the job because they feel like I know something about music—and I feel the same way.
We are in the process now of going through the existing acts and talking about the future rosters. Erykah Badu is over there. She’s gearing up for another album soon. The legendary Stevie Wonder’s over there. That’s something that was exciting just to me personally. India Arie is over there. We got a lot of soulful artists over there and the purpose of bringing me on was to try to get Motown back to its initial prominence.
Back in the day, Motown was on the pulse of young America. It wasn’t about just dope contemporary. It was pop, it was R&B, it was all of that. They looked at my career and the artist that I’ve become. I feel like I am one of the few people who draw the line. I could do a record with Jeezy and turn around and do a record with OutKast. Not a lot of cats can do that. As far as the new roster, we got a lot of acts that we are really excited to know and get hands-on and make sure that your interests come out right.
Let’s talk about your work as a solo artist. What have you been up to lately?
Well, I’m alright. My last album it didn’t do what I expected it to do. I was trying to do things that I didn’t have a full understanding of. I caused a little bit of a buzz coming out of a movie and I tried to take the things I learned and stand by myself. Some of the things I learned doing that movie, and try to apply it to this R&B thing. Not realizing that movie timing versus music is totally different.
Movies take a long time because movies take a long damn time to put work into. Whereas music, you don’t have as much time. I didn’t realize that. I’m trying to basically do movie time-frame stuff in an R&B time-frame. It’s just doesn’t pan out. But it is what it is. Every fall is an opportunity to learn something. That’s exactly what I did. For this particular album, for this new album, I made it my business to make sure to go back to the old Ne-Yo so that it’s quality records. It’s nothing that you have to rack your brain thinking about.
The other stuff aside, I make sure I cater to my entire audience. There’s definitely bass and cool octave beats, but there’s some dance and some for the ladies—a couple jams for them. It’s basically trying to please everybody. I know they tell me it’s impossible, but I don’t believe that. I feel like my music is for everybody. As long as the music is good, I can please everybody.
When does that album come out?
Here’s the complication: I have such a mass fanbase. I can’t put out shit until I have something for all of them. So I gotta find that record that toys around between the two, which is ridiculous in itself. Or I gotta give it away, which is not that hard. I got a pop one in the chamber ready to go. I got a urban one in the chamber ready to go. We’re just putting the finishing touches and it’s done. Make sure the mixing is right, making sure all the visuals are right and we start to go in the next month or so.
How hard is that to have one foot in Motown and then one foot as a solo artist at Def Jam? How does that work?
I’m not going to lie man, it’s not easy. I will definitely say that I’m genuinely being two different people. The only aspect of an artist that I can take to the boardroom is my love and understanding of music. Everything else has to be executive. The mind of an executive is a practical mind. The mind of an artist is a mind based off being alive and emotional. That’s what being an artist is about. Being an executive is about number-crunching and what makes sense, two plus two is four. That’s what an executive is. I’ve been an artist. That’s always the mind that I have. So, again, me going through the fronting process understanding what it is to be an executive and trying to apply that without condemning my artistic integrity at the same time. It ain’t easy. It definitely ain’t easy. I will say that.
You couldn’t pick a dude in the garage and make him the manager at a restaurant. So why would you put a dude who doesn’t know about music and put him as head of a label?
That sounds like a crappy job for a creative person like yourself. Is there any fun part about being an executive?
The fun for me is the setup that they got right now. For a real, real long time it’s been cats who are all about money, all about numbers, and a whole bunch about practicality. But none about music in the job scene, which makes no sense whatsoever. You couldn’t pick a dude in the garage and make him the manager at a restaurant. So why would you put a dude who doesn’t know about music and put him as head of a label? That don’t make no sense, right?
With this particular thing we are trying to do with Motown is put the power in the back of the hands of the people who actually do music. Everybody on my team is either a producer currently, or writing for this one and that one. The whole team is that. So sitting down as A&R management with these cats is like sitting down and having a intelligent conversation with people who know music. That’s a lot of fun to me.
To sit there and talk about the new acts and we just bringing something the label should have done years ago. Artist development, spending the time and spending the money to make sure that there’s not a lot of confusion as to who this artist is or what this artist does. Back then, when an artist came out, you knew what it was without having to explain it. We are trying to get to that point.
I am actually having a ball from that standpoint. The thing I am worried about is there’s a time an executive’s life where he has to think about, “OK, the music that feeds an artistic soul versus the what puts money in the label’s pockets and is a hit on the charts.” The two are not always the same. It's not always the same music. Rarely do you get music that does both. In those instances where you don’t, I got to be real with myself. Am I ready to put out music that I don’t believe in, but I know it’s going to sell? I’m not looking forward to that day. If I had to make that decision tomorrow, it wouldn’t go good at all.
So I’m not gonna turn on the radio, hear a Motown song, and think, “How did Ne-Yo let this record out on his watch?”
[Laughs] Let’s hope and pray we never see that day.