Ne-Yo’s Nonfiction begins with a spoken monologue. “The story you ‘bout to hear is complete fiction. It is however made up of a group of stories. True stories. About real people.” The rumblings of music build underneath the speaker’s voice as he continues with film noir-esque authority: “Our story begins in a dark place…” The 18 tracks that follow tell a story of love corrupted by money and celebrity and a search for a lost sense of reality.
At least that’s the idea.
For all its ambition, Nonfiction doesn’t quite live up to itself. The album is definitely a story and Ne-Yo is most definitely a storyteller, one of the most adept storytellers in popular music, for that matter. But after a grueling 19 tracks (or a still-grueling 14 tracks in the non-deluxe edition), the mixes that serve as Ne-Yo’s accompaniment become repetitive, crossing the line from smooth to flat. The distinct narrative voice of Ne-Yo is buried under synthesizer, electronic beats, computerized sounding horns, and R&B melodies that hardly ever waver or break new ground.
It’s a shame, too, because Ne-Yo’s story is genuinely compelling. In “Integrity,” he introduces us to the independent woman of romantic interest, who gives her name to the song. His relationship with Integrity challenges him to question his celebrity, its effects, and himself. “Do you love me for me though? / The real me, not my fly altar-ego,” he ponders on “Make It Easy.” Ultimately, he loses Integrity after giving into the temptation of unfaithfulness, leaving him back where he started.
Musically, these songs don’t really do justice to the story. “Time Of Our Lives,” Ne-Yo’s collaboration with Pitbull, sounds like everything else on mainstream radio, embracing the nearly ubiquitous pop theme of forgetting responsibility and partying “every night like my last.” It employs dance beats, mini bass-drops, and a sample of Ne-Yo’s voice singing the main hook.
“Who’s Taking You Home” also crosses deeply into pop territory, varying only occasionally from the catchy lyric, “who’s taking you home?” and featuring an unsurprising drop after the bridge. The songs that cross into this simplistic pop formula undermine the album’s more complex and introspective purpose.
Other songs, like “Integrity” and “Make It Easy” rely more on Ne-Yo’s R&B abilities. His voice is constantly crisp and flavorful, reminiscent at times of a Michael Jackson at his best, even underneath a dash of auto-tune. He has a distinct ability to create a scene with specific characters, something that isn’t seen in popular music, which tends to be more general and vague. He sets up Integrity’s character in “Integrity.” (“She don’t really drink much so she say but by the way she was putting the Malibu Reds away she was either ‘bout that life tryna front but tryna get right.”)
The problem with these R&B songs is that they never change. By the 10th track, the electronic beats, the catchy, smooth hooks, and the perfect synthesizers all blend together. They distract from the story with their conformity. There are no major differences between, for instance, the rhythms of “Integrity” and “Take You There.”
The songs never do anything to surprise—they never take any real chances in melody, dynamics, instrumentation, or with R&B stereotypes. In terms of music, there is nothing here that hasn’t been done already by any other R&B artist. There’s a certain point where, in their smoothness, all the songs begin to sound like they’re just about sex, and the character of Integrity gets momentarily forgotten. In an age where almost anything could be auto-tuned, vocal prowess alone has a hard time inspiring.
There’s a chance that the staleness of the album is just a consequence of its length. More likely, it is the result of Ne-Yo’s precarious balance between R&B and pop, and the mixed responsibilities of being an artist and selling catchy hooks.