R&B is a big deal in America. We think we get the cream of the crop? Nope - it's just the highly-successful artists that make it big enough to cross the Atlantic, and the latest sensation is Grammy-winning Shaffer Smith, aka Ne-Yo. Ne-Yo is some sort of multi-talented songwriting machine: having written hits for Beyonce, Rihanna and practically everyone else from Whitney to Britney, the 28-year-old is pretty well-versed in what makes a mainstream hit. Even so, we've seen how successful songwriters can make a dreadful mess of their own material (step forward, OneRepublic's Ryan Tedder), so albums such as 'Year of the Gentleman' - even though it's his third record - are approached with trepidation.
Surprisingly, this is a top-notch album that ties together neo-soul, r 'n' b and pop music in a package that sounds far from manufactured or contrived, even if it is. It's obvious that Ne-Yo's an experienced songwriter - but less-obvious are his influences, which are a lot more varied than his contemporaries, if these songs are anything to go by.
There's a slick balance of club hits (Closer, Miss Independent), classic party-style r 'n' b (the fab Nobody), wistful, lovelorn pop ballads (Mad) and uptempo, finger-clickin' soul-pop that's reminiscent of the Jackson 5 (So You Can Cry). Of course, the tempo eventually gives way to a glut of predictable, doleful tracks that threaten to ruin the ambiance - but it's saved by the Beatles-inspired, piano-pop closer What's the Matter - a completely unexpected curveball that's atypical of this album as a whole.
At the end of the day, this is a modern r 'n' b album, so if you're a die-hard metalhead, don't expect miracles. With a little open-mindedness, however, you may be pleasantly surprised at the creativity that a songwriter with actual talent can bring to the genre.