When the phone rings for R&B star Ne-Yo, it's probably a woman on the line. That's hardly odd for a teen idol. But in Ne-Yo's case, it's not necessarily a fan hoping for some personal attention. It's just as likely to be a diva looking for a song.
In the last few months, 24-year-old Ne-Yo has become the go-to writer for top female singers in search of a hit. Ever since he co-wrote the unstoppable No. 1 smash for Beyonce "Irreplaceable," (her biggest single ever), Ne-Yo has been speed-dialed by women like Celine Dion, Whitney Houston, Britney Spears, the Pussycat Dolls' Nicole Scherzinger, and Jennifer Hudson (who appears on his new CD, "Because of You," out this week).
"From the day I was born until I was 16, I was surrounded by women," said Ne-Yo (born Shaffer C. Smith). "My mother and sister and five aunts and grandmother all lived in the same house."
Ne-Yo has also co-penned high-charted songs for Pretty Ricky and Marques Houston, plus No. 1's for Mario ("Let Me Love You") and himself (his breakthrough song last year "So Sick").
"Sick" established Ne-Yo's style, a plush form of R&B that skews closer to pop than hip-hop. "Most R&B is lacking in the melody department these days," Ne-Yo said.
Ne-Yo grew up emulating the smoothest songs of Michael Jackson. Ne-Yo, who took his name from Keanu Reeves' character in "The Matrix," admits that Jackson was his first role model. "When I was growing up, my mom gave me his 'Off the Wall' album to study," he said. "I had a similar, nasally tone."
He began to hone that tone as a teen, first in a boy group, Youngstown, then on his own. Ne-Yo was signed to a solo deal on Columbia but was dropped. But after a song he co-wrote with Scott Storch became a hit for Marques Houston, he was able to get a new contract with Def Jam.
Ne-Yo's image is fairly clean-cut, just as his songs hold to old-school melodic values. It's the latter quality that attracted stars as mainstream as Celine to hire him.
For Whitney, he's writing songs that deal with her as a regular person, as opposed to many others she's working on that rehash her garish struggles. Ne-Yo told Billboard he had several sessions scheduled with Spears, but she stood him up every time.