Ne-Yo may be a man of many talents, but his new album, Non-Fiction, makes it clear that the scope of those talents is limited. His vocals, in particular, can’t be tasked with carrying too much weight, working best on agile dance-pop tunes, acoustic ballads, and smooth sex-jams like 2012’s “Lazy Love.” Tellingly, that song, from R.E.D., an album with no real thematic guardrail, is a better-told story than just about anything on Non-Fiction, which, in its deluxe edition, immediately announces itself as a concept album: “The story you’re about to hear is complete fiction…It is, however, made up of a group of stories, true stories…Thus making the story itself real, a true story,” Ne-Yo muses in the muddled, ridiculous intro that establishes Non-Fiction’s ambitions.
But Non-Fiction breaks from Ne-Yo’s past concept albums, 2008’s Year of the Gentlemen and 2010’s superb Libra Scale, by getting bogged down in dramaturgy: intros, interludes, a smattering of skits, and most disruptively, songs heavy on narratives the singer lacks the writing chops to develop beyond one-note character sketches. The songs sometimes skew allegorical: The girl of “Integrity” (that’s also her name) calls out Ne-Yo’s womanizing early on, only to leave him pining for her in a pretty falsetto, effectively back-peddling the agency of a song about a woman who was never more than a cipher, a catalyst for the singer’s angst.
Ne-Yo fairs better when abstracting his characters’ details entirely, as he does on a pair of EDM jams: “Who’s Taking You Home” reclaims the club setting of his last album’s condescending hit “Let Me Love You (Until You Learn to Love Yourself)” by focusing on the insistence of the man’s desire rather than the weakness of the woman being desired, while “Coming with You” completes the shift by giving up his power completely, pledging earnest devotion over drum n’ bass and horn charts. Unfortunately, that’s the extent of Non-Fiction’s successes, both textual and musical. Ne-Yo’s umpteenth sexual-transcendence slow jam “Take You There” churns on a generic R&B throb, and never works up any particular evidence of his prowess; “Religious” is a rote one-to-one between seeing a beautiful woman and a religious experience; and the cheating-anxiety song “Why,” with its refusal of introspection or self-blame, isn’t far removed from the climactic whining of Trey Songz’s Trigga.
The worst track on Non-Fiction is “Story Time,” which starts with frank talk about sex between its two principals, with Ne-Yo reciting both characters’ parts. “I wish you’d just give [a threesome] a try,” he begins earnestly. But when the girl’s response is abject discomfort, he resorts to arrogant bullying. It’s easily the most misogynistic song in Ne-Yo’s discography, its sober delivery offering not a trace of distance between Ne-Yo and his character, and allying us with the man’s tone of comic exasperation rather than the woman’s justifiable anger. As glaring a misstep as “Story Time” is, though, the album isn’t exactly cut from the same cloth of offensive, predatory womanizing as recent efforts by Songz and Robin Thicke. Instead, Non-Fiction is just blandly lazy about developing its representation of women, like it is about everything else. That lack of specificity renders the album ironically hindered by its own overt conception: a story album unable to sustain interest as fiction, non- or otherwise.