Ne-Yo glides across the set of a Manhattan photo studio with confidence. The Grammy winner pulls the front of his Dsquared2 denim shirt toward the floor, flattening the fabric against his lean body. The entertainer runs his fingers along the brim of a black fedora and strikes a pose. In this moment it’s hard to imagine Ne-Yo — born Shaffer Smith — as anything but a self-assured showman.
“For a minute I was caught up in the element of the world not accepting me as me,” he admits. For years, the 38-year-old singer-songwriter donned hats not only for the look but also to hide a prematurely thinning hairline.
“I’ve been wearing a hat since high school,” he continues, explaining that his teachers would allow him to cover his head in order to avoid bullying from other students. “Then into adulthood the hat became a part of my body. It was a major deal for me not to show my head. I was so insecure about it.”
But last year, Ne-Yo decided to shed the chapeau for the debut season of “World of Dance” — the competition show that returns for its second season this month with fellow judges Jennifer Lopez, Jenna Dewan Tatum and Derek Hough. “I don’t know if anybody else noticed, but it was a major deal to me. I realized I can’t preach this [message of] self-love as I’m hiding behind a security blanket.”
It’s with his latest album — “Good Man,” which is set for release on June 8 — that the soon-to-be father of four hopes to deliver a lyrical message of social responsibility with each track.
“We need this right now,” he explains. “We [as men] just don’t know how it is we’re supposed to act toward other people and in regard to women. It’s kind of a ‘lead by example’ conversation that I’m trying to have here.”
Noting the recent progress made by #MeToo and Time’s Up, Ne-Yo says he wants to redefine the idea of “cool” for young men — particularly with his young sons. He says, “You are a walking, talking, breathing billboard and the product you’re selling is yourself. As I got more into fashion, I started to realize the power of looking like you give a damn and it suddenly became very clear to me how important it is to spread that message. You can be just as cool and masculine but also be a decent person.”
The singer took a two-year break from music to marry wife Crystal Renay and have a third child (the couple’s first together), but in returning to the studio it was important for the “Miss Independent” singer to maintain authenticity in an ever-evolving industry. “Everything has changed,” says the performer, who released his debut album 12 years ago. “The sound has changed, the way people are getting to the music has changed, the process of putting it out has changed. I feel like a new artist again.”
Momentarily tempted to emulate the sound of contemporary hitmakers, Ne-Yo ultimately decided to stay true to himself with “Good Man,” which he says is as focused on the music as it is the lyrics.
“Of course you want to sell records, but at the same time you can’t let that be the motivating factor,” he continues, tipping the brim of his hat back slightly, revealing an expression of assuredness. “I had to step back and catch myself. It was tempting for me to go in and do what’s being done right now, but I’m not doing anybody any favors by being phony.”
By overcoming his fear of being seen bareheaded, the singer explains his personal collection of headwear (which he admits numbers “in the thousands”) is now “part of his brand” rather than a safeguard and reveals he is working on developing his own line of hats.
“They’re just style for me now,” he says. When asked what hangups he hopes to conquer next, Ne-Yo pauses and tugs at the brim of his fedora. “For me it’s about making sure my daughter knows her worth and making sure my sons grow up to be strong, intelligent black men. The music isn’t going anywhere. I’ll be 95 years old still putting out music. The major goal now is to be as good a man as possible.”