By Natalya Jones
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When the purveyors of pop culture want to know who'll be hot the next year, they usually look to the dubious cast of characters known as experts. But that title gets thrown around like dollar bills at a strip club. The chance that they'll be on the money is usually Nicole Richie-slim. But last year's predictions about R&B in '06 were different. Why? It's all because of a 22-year-old singer/songwriter out of Las Vegas named Ne-Yo. As the first new star of 2006, it might have been easy to write him off as another failed forecast. But in the year since Ne-Yo joined the pop culture game, he's already become a giant in the world of contemporary R&B. And with the set of tourmates Ne-Yo's bringing to town this Thursday Chris Brown, Juelz Santana, Dem Franchize Boyz, Lil Wayne,and Cherish not even Nostradamus would predict bad things for the young singer.
Born Shaffer Smith, Ne-Yo didn't exactly bust down the doors of the music industry from the jump-off. His first single, "Stay" (which featured rapper Peedie Crakk), debuted in late 2005 and saw only moderate success in urban radio, reaching number 36 on the R&B charts.
With all of his success in the realm of love songs, it was ironic that Ne-Yo's breakout single would be "So Sick," which features the line, "I'm so sick of love songs." Like scarlet fever, "So Sick" was red-hot, contagious... and maybe even a little nauseating. The single climbed up the charts, finding its way to the top of the Hot 100 for two weeks.
On the heels of this success, Ne-Yo released his debut solo album in February. Titled, In My Own Words, the album scaled the charts like R. Kelly climbing on... let's just say the disc went platinum.
Prior to his solo efforts, Ne-Yo made a name for himself within R&B circles as a songwriter, penning tracks for the likes of singer/actress/really hot chick Christina Milian, urban boy band B2K, and American Idol's Ruben Studdard (you thought Studdard wrote 'em?). But Ne-Yo's most notable joint as a songwriter was the one he penned for fellow crooner Mario "Let Me Love You," a nine-week Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper.
Although Ne-Yo's artistic success is well-documented, rumors concerning his personal life seem to be just as pervasive. On more than one occasion, the singer has found himself smack in the middle of quite a bit of chatter throughout the blogosphere. Following an interview in the May issue of Vibe magazine where he revealed having sex with "every girl in his 11th grade class" the chatter grew louder. Soon, talk was circulating that Ne-Yo was a sex addict, à la Wilt Chamberlain (OK, maybe not on that level). Who wouldn't want to be a fly on the wall of that high school reunion? But Ne-Yo's admissions didn't end there. He also admitted to having sex "three to four times a day." Not surprisingly, some backtracking was in order; the mini-Wilt has since denied an addiction to intercourse.
But despite such denials, the rumor mill kept churning. In fact, if one were to type the term "Ne-Yo rumor" into Google, it would return more than 100,000 results and not all of them would be ads for porn sites. The latest blog chatter surrounding Ne-Yo has him coming out of the closet and on the receiving end of a sexual act from one of his female backup dancers. Even Vibe magazine got in on the action, asking the question, "Is Ne-Yo Gay?" Within the span of a week, there were hidden-camera shots taken on a Sidekick 3 of his female dancer going downtown and a report of him saying he is homosexual to Essence magazine. Come on now is this really what Al Gore had in mind when he invented the Internet?
Regardless of the cyber gossip, one thing is certain: Ne-Yo has become a bigger star than anyone expert or otherwise could have predicted. It was only logical that he'd hit the road for a massive national tour. And he signed on with no less a performer than fellow R&B sensation Chris Brown.
The 17-year-old Brown recorded one of the biggest hits of 2005 with the single "Run It." The dance-heavy track ran its way to number one on the Hot 100 and stayed there for five weeks. Brown's debut solo album oh-so creatively titled Chris Brown is platinum-certified, with 1.4 million units sold. That's a lot of product to move, and it's not something a fly-by-night pop star could pull. When Brown followed "Run It" with this year's "Yo (Excuse Me Miss)," the Virginia native escaped one-hit-wonder status, once again hitting the top ten. Though his dance moves and uptempo club-friendly tracks welcome comparisons to Usher, even Brown will admit he's got a long way to go before he's in that league (e.g., being able to hook up with hot R&B chicks like TLC's Chili and land a starring role in a terrible movie like In the Mix).
Like most crooning pop stars, Brown and Ne-Yo could always use a little extra street cred. Enter New Orleans native and Cash Money Records President Lil Wayne (born Dwayne Michael Carter). At just 23, Lil Wayne (or Lil Weezy, as he is often referred to) is a ten-year veteran of the hip-hop game. When he was just 13, the rapper was spitting verses about things most 13-year-olds can't even comprehend. By age 15, Wayne became a star in the South and Midwest as a member of the Hot Boys, where he rhymed alongside Juvenile, Turk, and B.G. At 17, Wayne launched his solo career with the release of The Block Is Hot,which reached number three on the charts and has sold more than a million copies. Wayne has since earned two more platinum plaques as a solo artist for his 2004 release The Carter, and since there were loose ends in the plot, he tied it all up with a sequel, The Carter 2,earlier this year that also went platinum.
Rounding out the rest of Thursday's gig are Juelz Santana (a former Cam'ron protégé who's now a star in his own right), snap music heavyweights Dem Franchize Boyz (reppin' the ATL), and R&B girl group Cherish. So Ne-Yo's found himself some good company to help finish off the year. After that, 2007 can only be... nah, screw that. We'll leave such fortunetelling in the hands of, you know, the experts.