Why is the deluxe edition of Ne-Yo’s Non-Fiction 19 tracks long? And what’s with the goofy R&B noir setup that drives the mood of the first few tracks, only for Ne-Yo to ditch it in the second and third acts, which then instead read like bits of a pickup artist’s memoir? What is this, Thr33 Ringz? Why are Ne-Yo and Motown so apparently eager to release a full-length album take on Rick Ross, Wale, and Drake’s “Diced Pineapples”? Who do I sue for damages? How do I make it stop?
Not that you'd guess as much from listening to Non-Fiction, but songwriting is, typically, Ne-Yo’s strongest, more lucrative forte. He's written hits for Beyonce and Rihanna, and duets with the likes of Rick Ross and Celine Dion. Left to his own voice and devices, however, wit fails Ne-Yo here. Where the Ne-Yo of 2008's Year of the Gentleman was thoughtful and tenderly persuasive, the Ne-Yo of Non-Fiction is a pickup artist, the sort of cad who begs for box and yet refuses to go down. You'd fuck this guy, perhaps, but it's hard to love him.
Non-Fiction opens with a convoluted disclaimer that “the story you’re about to hear is complete fiction . . . it is, however, made up of a group of stories, true stories, about real people . . . going through real things.” Track two, "Everybody Loves," quickly confirms that yes, spoken word poetry will feature throughout the proceedings; and so it’s all downhill from there. With song concepts exhausted and his charisma at an all-time low, we’re rather subjected to experimental whims of personality; Ne-Yo the DJ ("She Knows"), Ne-Yo the ain't-shit boyfriend ("Story Time"), Ne-Yo the sex therapist ("Take You There"), though he’s a false mack in most cases ("Integrity," "Make It Easy," "She Said I'm Hood Tho"). On one interlude, “Let You What,” he and his dime-of-the-night squeeze into the back of a limo, and he spits the sleaziest game that even she, a hired extra, rejects: "To deny our impulses is to deny the very thing that makes us human."
Non-Fiction is a fire sale of songs no one else bought, over beats no other singer could’ve wanted. The beat selection is whiplash, from pop to R&B to retro trance vibes that never settle into a sure, comfortable pattern. "Religious," for instance, shoves a gospel refrain between a lead single featuring Jeezy and the twerk bass of "She Knows." These beats are mostly moldy, for one, but more importantly they’re discordant, and so my prevailing reaction to the final, overall product is impatience and frustration. What is this album, and who is it for? It's safe to assume that more women than men are buying Ne-Yo albums, right? So why all the condescension and game? What's with all the creepy interludes and gaslit premises?
Predictably, Non-Fiction stabilizes in the many instances where an A-list rapper swoops through to relieve Ne-Yo for a couple dozen measures. T.I. and Pitbull improve “One More” and “Time of Our Lives,” respectively; the latter doesn’t match or even hat-tip the climatic chemistry of Ne-Yo and Pitbull’s precedent hit collaboration, “Give Me Everything,” but here it’ll have to do, since the rest of the album is bitch-made flirtation, pickup lines galore, and whole tracks that are, in fact, redundant, e.g., “Who’s Taking You Home” and “Coming With You” being nearly identical in concept, with no space between them in the album’s sequencing.
“She Knows,” the album’s second single, is the rare, contemporary hit, with obvious appeal to Juicy J and to the rest of us as a clean, big beat swing at urban radio play. "She Knows" is the one bull's-eye; the rest of Ne-Yo's bullets shower around it, missing by miles. "Good Morning" is too sensual for this otherwise crass album. “Story Time,” which I don’t even hate, is Ne-Yo’s playful, acoustic account of his pressuring his girlfriend into a threesome despite her repeated objections; as sung gender dialectic, it sounds like a Joanne vs. Maureen outtake from RENT. That’s my perplexed praise of one of the album’s funkier, more distinct cuts, so I’ll spare you expletives for the generic rest. I just wish I could spare you the album.