I apologize, Ne-Yo, for making light of your chivalry last time around. Year of the Gentlemen remains a pretty uneven listen once it gets past the hits “Closer” and “Miss Independent,” and deference as a default emotion still only stretches so far before the listener is likely to snap. But in retrospect, I didn’t give you or your collaborators enough credit for crafting both smooth, listenable pop hooks and, as I said in 2008, “vocal harmonies I expect Ne-Yo to recycle when he begins his collaborations with Michael Jackson.” Well, never has the time been better for the heir apparent to Jackson’s throne to step up his game.
And that he does. Libra Scale is a tighter, more sophisticated and compelling album that borrows not just MJ’s swoony-smooth melodies, but also his taste for roleplay. So the press materials say, Libra Scale is actually a superhero cantata, with Ne-Yo’s character, Jerome, leading a justice league of well-tempered “gentlemen” who, presumably, crusade by holding doors open and throwing their overcoats over puddles, and who trade in everything, including their freedom to fall in love, in exchange for fame, fortune, and the sort of respect that comes from keeping a bustling metropolis safe.
Libra Scale opens on a high note, drunk on “Champagne Life” and treating “six Miss Independents” to a night on the town, “a nice meal and a good wine.” If it seems the entire exposition was left off the album, the silken, dramatic “Champagne Life” sets the scene nonetheless, since most of the rest of the “story” is only conveyed just as obliquely. Jerome meets the love of his life (too late) at least three or four times before their romance threatens to unleash hell—or maybe just a “Beautiful Monster,” in the form of a “Closer”-reminiscent club banger. On the cool and mildly Caribbean “Know Your Name,” he pleads, “If I can be a gentleman, can I ask your permission girl?/Said if it’s all right with you, can I know your name?” On “Telekinesis,” he uses the power of his mind to move his girl to orgasm without even making physical contact: “Baby let me touch you without touching you.” Eventually, he pursues his “Crazy Love,” which sees him admitting, “They say love and insanity are somewhat related.” You think?
On one hand, Libra Scale sees Ne-Yo switching the focus back on himself, and not serving as footstool for whatever woman is tolerant enough to put up with his supplicant self (the opening line of “Cause I Said So,” “Do it ‘cause you want to/You want to ‘cause I said so,” is an absolute shock coming from Ne-Yo’s mouth). On the other hand, that Ne-Yo has to step into a character to offer paradise suggests that the boy isn’t really cured at all, that he’s actually romantically dissociative. If he continues in this vein, he may accrue enough psychological chinks in the armor to truly follow in MJ’s paranoid footsteps. At the moment, though, it feels like a remarkably groovy one-off.