Ican’t remember the last time I heard a male crooner, in the R&B fold or otherwise, use the word “boyfriend” as emphatically or invitingly as Ne-Yo dares to in “Single,” one of the typically sensitive relationship ditties on his third album Year of the Gentleman. If you listen to your male R&B crooners with the same skeptical ears I do, you’ve also spent much of your life listening to the likes of Color Me Badd, Sisqo and Justin Timberlake front faux-alpha male sentiment about their honest intentions to fuck when their weenie personae would probably be a lot more honestly served by Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It mantra, “Please, baby, please, baby, please, baby baby baby.”
If there’s anything keeping the musically uneven and ballad-heavy Gentlemen afloat, it’s the 28-year-old singer-songwriter’s emphatic deference to the XX chromosome. The album spends 48 minutes bowing, bending on one knee, clearing a path, buying flowers, cooking breakfast, and ignoring every other chick up in this bitch, only he wouldn’t say “bitch,” and he wouldn’t say it’s because he respects you too much “as a woman,” because it’s demeaning to treat women any differently than men when they’re equal, even though in his opinion women are so much better than men. Ne-Yo’s celebration of gentlemanly behavior only really starts to verge into pathological territory on the simpering “Why Does She Stay,” in which he literally bemoans his lack of enthusiasm in taking care of some of the domestic chores: “She hates that I don’t do dishes, even though I mess up the most.” The implication being that he does all the rest of the chores and only skips that one task out of consideration for the sanctity of her un-chipped crockery. It gets worse. Eventually, Ne-Yo steps outside of himself to see things from her point of view and comes to the conclusion that she could date any man she wants and, yes, even he would probably pick someone better if he were in her shoes.
While that passive-passive stance bubbles beneath the surface during more than just a couple songs, at the very least Ne-Yo proves to be a gifted enough songwriter to craft buttery melodies that help you not notice his needy-possessive attempts to stare into your eyes. “Closer” is an irresistible pop hit that tanked on the R&B charts, which only goes to prove either the musical bankruptcy of the R&B listening audience or my increasingly ancient pop-culture credentials. The song begins with “Eye of the Tiger” rhythm guitar pizzicato hits before opening up into warm synth washes and a pop-house 4/4 kick. “So You Can Cry” is musically somewhere between “Penny Lane” and Free To Be…You And Me, an almost embarrassingly frictionless sonic environment that matches the song’s wholesale “If that’s what you want, all right” emotional acquiescence. In contrast, the beats of “Nobody” are hard, with bottle rhythms snatched from Marvin Gaye’s permanently erect “Got to Give It Up” and vocal harmonies I expect Ne-Yo to recycle when he begins his collaborations with Michael Jackson.
So, even if the album eventually succumbs to Mariah Carey LP-balladitis, and even if it never quite soars like Justified (which had the benefit of that inner conflict between sensitivity and pussy-hounding that Ne-Yo couldn’t fake if he tried), Gentlemen‘s complete lack of irony or humor makes for an ironically surprising listen. It’s R&B album as marriage material. You’ll come back to it when your looks fade.