Before he became Ne-Yo, he was Shaffer Smith, composer of notable hits like Mario’s inescapable 2004 chart-topper “Let Me Love You.” The marketing surrounding his debut In My Own Words emphasizes the 22-year-old Arkansas native’s writing skills (oh, and judging by the album’s numerous photographs, he also likes hats…a lot), and while Def Jam’s promotional materials and the disc’s lead single “So Sick,” a radio heartbreak song in the “We Belong Together” mold, position him as the slightly more urban answer to John Legend, he’s not quite as talented or compelling. “Time,” the one “writerly” song that does successfully place Ne-Yo in the same class as Legend and Alicia Keys, comes at the very end of the album. Unfortunately, R. Kelly’s bump n’ grind raindrop-heavy influence is just as prevalent, particularly on “When You’re Mad,” “Mirror” (on which Ne-Yo declares himself “a freak [in bed]”), and “Let Go,” among others. What makes the smash hit “So Sick” and songs like “Sexy Love” a welcome change is their warm ‘80s Motown vibe, reminiscent of both Thriller-era Michael and DeBarge (“Stay” and “It Just Ain’t Right,” in fact, directly reference the group’s second-rate Jackson 5 sound). Another album highlight, “Sign Me Up,” evokes Usher—that is, Michael, again. In My Own Words might pale next to Legend’s stellar debut, but, even at its Robert Kelly worst, it’s not hateable. And isn’t that all one can ask for from mainstream R&B these days?
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