Album Review of Ne-Yo: In My Own Words (15th Anniversary Digital Deluxe reissue) (UMe/Def Jam)
Even though I’ve reviewed a couple recently, I’m not a big fan of writing about reissues. This time it’s different. Ne-Yo broke out of his behind-the-scenes hit-songwriter role and into the public consciousness as a hit performer 15 years ago, very early in my hiatus from music journalism, during a time when I was almost completely not discovering new music. So, for me, this was a chance to dive into discovering a huge record that launched a big, new star during a brief blindspot in my musical history. So please indulge me, if you will.
This reissue, released on February 26th, contains all thirteen original tracks, plus “Girlfriend,” which was a previously just a retail exclusive track. In addition, you’ll find a remix of “Stay” that was released on the Japanese version of In My Own Words, acoustic versions of “So Sick” and “Sexy Love,” and instrumental versions of “So Sick” and “When You’re Mad.” In total, 19 tracks.
Giving this a full listen after 15 years – for me, my first full listen beginning-to-end and my first exposure to many of the songs that weren’t hits – you can see why this album broke Ne-Yo so big. Seriously, though, I don’t need to explain why this massive pop/R&B star is so huge. You know his voice, his hooks, his clever turns of phrases, his catchy musical dances around the rhythm. So I guess I’ll just mention which songs are my favorites, and you can agree, disagree, or perhaps listen to some of those favorites you might have missed if you just cherry-picked the hits.
First, though, let’s start with the hits.
“So Sick” was my own personal favorite the first few times through this disc, though that could be because I already knew the song so well. It was the one number one hit on In My Own Words. If this were a horserace, that’d be the equivalent of betting on the favorite.
After several listens, though, I came to appreciate the clever lyrics and mildly unpredictable rhythms of “When You’re Mad,” which only reached #15 on the charts back in 2006. (Yeah, I heard it. “Only”?)
Meanwhile, “Sexy Love,” which reached #7 in 2006, with its almost Michael Jackson-ish opening and Ne-Yo’s crisp vocals lines and “oh baby” interjections, riding a smooth music bed and hypnotic underlying rhythm. (Yes, I sing along with the background rhythm.)
Beyond the hits, “Stay” was the first single, a minor R&B hit at the time of its initial release, and its musical turns, while they keep the song interesting from a music critic standpoint, rather than going down a more direct musical path, may have kept some casual listeners from latching on quickly enough to make the song a mega-hit, especially since it was Ne-Yo’s very first single. Still, “I just can’t help myself…”
Personal favorites among the non-hits include “Let Me Get This Right,” where an relatively unstoppable steamrolling rhythm merges well with Ne-Yo’s bursts of vocal power. And “It Just Ain’t Right,” for similar rhythmic reasons, though the music bed helps me picture myself perhaps on a beach this time, and the impressive but restrained vocal gymnastics on a particular “ohhh” toward the end are fun, too. Then there’s the jazzy opening of “I Ain’t Gotta Tell You,” on which Ne-Yo sings all around the pocket, speeding and slowing his vocals; when done well, it’s unavoidably entrancing. And there are the rich wall-of-vocals that powers “Get Down Like That.” Of course, as is the case with album cuts, you’ll likely have your own favorites.
Among the bonus tracks, I’m kind of partial to the acoustic versions of “So Sick” and “Sexy Love.” The instrumentals, on the other hand, primarily just highlight for me how much this album relies on Ne-Yo’s killer vocals and lyrics. They seem surprisingly pedestrian – they really are just the music beds, not instrumentally souped-up reimaginings – though they’re perhaps quite fun if you want to use them to sing “So Sick” or “When You’re Mad” on your own.
Even before reading this review, I’m sure most of you already know whether or not you dig Ne-Yo’s music. If you’re a fan, this reissue may be worth it for access to the bonus tracks. And if you’re like me, and you somehow missed snagging this hit album when it was initially released, here’s your chance. In My Own Words is worth your attention. The very best crystal clear, top-shelf R&B vocalists’ records always are.
Ne-Yo doesn’t currently have any live performances scheduled, but when they are, you will be able to find that listed on the “Tour” page of his website.