It's two hours until a noon pool party, a stone's throw away from Secrets Resorts and Spa, and SO is sitting across from R&B star Ne-Yo in a plush chair in the hotel's lounge. The imminent party, billed Malibu Fiesta, is being hosted by Ne-Yo's Compound Island company at the uber-chic Seawind Beach Club in Freeport, Montego Bay but the star is already seriously jazzed up, thanks to Jamaican-infused libations. "So far, so good," he shares about his time on The Rock. "I've drunk more rum than I should but that's not a bad thing...I'm actually enjoying myself."
Leaning forward to engage us in convo, Ne-Yo shares that he counts himself a fan of Jamaican music, singling out Shaggy as a good friend. "I have been listening to his music for a really long time from Boombastic on up." He tells SO that, growing up, "my mom was a huge Shabba Ranks fan so there was a lot of his music floating around the house, and Lady Saw's as well" . Were he to have his pick of any Jamaican artiste to record with, without skipping a beat, Ne-Yo says he would be gung-ho about a collaboration with Maxi Priest. "I love the fact that he was doing Jamaican music to a degree and it crossed over into American culture where if you didn't know, you didn't know... it was good," he notes, before breaking into a few bars of Priest's 1990 Billboard chart-topper Close To You.
A three-time Grammy Award-winning star, Ne-Yo's on the island to strengthen the staffing and scouting possibilities for the Caribbean arm of his Compound Entertainment. Red Tails, the period film in which he has a co-starring role, was premiered at Mobay's Palace Multiplex the previous evening. The film is a based on the real-life, but little-known story of the Tuskegee Airmen, a group of African-American United States Army Air Force servicemen who served in World War II.
"It had its challenges but it had its glory moments," the singer/songwriter, born Shaffer Chimere Smith, says of his experience making Red Tails.
"We shot in Prague for four months and we had some of the actual remaining Tuskegee airmen on set with us. These guys are like 80-plus years old, but some of the most incredible human beings you'll ever meet. They were there to make sure that everything we did was as authentic as it could possibly be," the singer-cum-actor notes.
Ne-Yo says he was impressed with the veteran airmen's fastidious attention to detail and their vivid memories of the past. "They would say 'Fix your tie!' and scrutinise the way we dressed, to the point where they would grab you and pull your pants up to the place they were supposed to be, fix your belt and the whole nine. They were truly the best of the best at what they did and it's about time they got the recognition they deserve."
On an ever upward ascent in the music biz, having penned songs for Beyoncé, Rihanna, and other music heavyweights, Ne-Yo was recently appointed senior vice-president of A&R at Motown Records. "I was told that the seat I now hold is the seat Smokey Robinson held when he was over at Motown, so I don't have to tell you those are big shoes to fill. So I look up to Smokey and the incredible things he did for that company just as a songwriter and an artiste, I definitely look up to him." The singer/songwriter also has immense respect for Lionel Richie, and draws reference to the fact Richie was once honoured as a music publisher of the year. "Normally, that's an award that goes to a publishing company and I think he is the only man that ever won that award, he himself, Lionel Richie, not EMI not ASCAP... Lionel Richie! Now that's something to aim for. That's a goal of mine."
He's also set to release his fourth solo album this summer. "I'm almost done with it," Ne-Yo tells SO. "I had a topic I wanted to speak on with this album, just basically about the imperfections as a man, a husband, a boyfriend, an artiste and a human. It started out as a concept album but in the process of recording, there are side streets you wind up going off of so it might start as one thing and turn out to be completely different. The running title was The Cracks of Mr Perfect but as of right now, the songs that I have been doing of late do not make sense with that particular title so it's untitled for right now."
So, what's the upside and downside of fame? "Fame is a double-edged sword," he tells SO. "As an artiste, we thrive on the acceptance of other people. I put my music out and you as a consumer, you don't have to buy my music, you don't have to pay interest in me; you choose to. I ask you to and you choose to. But for some fans, they feel since they have chosen to do so, I now have to tell who I'm dating, what I ate for breakfast, what goes on in the privacy of my own home... not that I have an issue sharing certain things, but at the end of the day, I'm still a human being."
He feels his family and love life should be off-limits for public consumption. "Absolutely," he says.
"Besides being an artiste and a celebrity, just as a man, you are not supposed to ask me what me and my lady do, you are not supposed to know who my lady is. If I didn't tell you, that's not your business."
As for what's next for his Compound Island music outfit, which has a distribution deal with Universal Music, he says currently there are no Jamaican acts signed to the company. "As of right now, I'm in the process of putting together the staff, always looking for talent, always looking for the next big thing. Our main focus is putting together the right team, we are further along than the embryonic stage but still a work in progress."
"We are still in the process of looking and making sure we are getting the best of the best because it takes more than talent. It's about work ethic, above everything else; that's the most important thing to me. There are certain elements of talent that can be taught; you can't teach somebody work ethic... it's something that has to be in you. I'll take the person with the work ethic over the person that can sing incredibly well...that's the reality of it." He says that among the artistes Compound has signed to its slate are former Cheetah Girl, Adrienne Bailon, Ravaughn Brown and Loren Allred. Ne-Yo beams in delight about the prospects of his roster of artistes, but at the moment, he is eager to sip a Malibu cocktail and head over to the beach party.