The weekend had started early in Wembley. Thursday night’s arena crowd was dressed to party and happy to be hyped by DJ anthems before the main event: US R&B singer-songwriter, performer, producer and self-styled gentleman Ne-Yo, aka 42-year-old Shaffer Chimere Smith. All of which might have sounded super-smooth, were it not for the shockingly poor sound quality, made more harshly evident by the ramped-up volume. Given that this was a major venue, you hoped it would at least be resolved for the headline set.
It wasn’t. Ne-Yo’s arrival was heralded by a big-screen montage of his various achievements, but his opening number, the elegant “Miss Independent” (a Grammy-winning 2008 hit), sounded frustratingly muddy. These technical issues would taint the entire show, Ne-Yo’s distinctly plaintive vocals only just about audible.
He was characteristically spruced up: sharp suit, spangly scarf, signature tilted fedora. The singer is also famed for his choreography, which, like his music, bears an undeniable Michael Jackson influence, though that is not overstated nowadays. His talented quartet of female dancers did most of the flexing while his house band served up slightly pedestrian arrangements.
Since his 2006 debut album In My Own Words, Ne-Yo has earned his status as part of a golden age of commercial R&B; the many twenty-something fans in the crowd attested to that era’s enduring appeal (his runner-up stint in TV series The Masked Singer last year may also have helped). The setlist stacked his slick, melodic grooves high (“Sexy Love”, “Closer”), but the woeful sound let them down.
When he addressed the crowd in breathless patter, he veered between well-worn overtures to “the sexy ladies in the house” and cheerful self-affirmation, defining his songs as “classic classics” or “future classics”. The slow jam “Layin’ Low” was presented as the latter, taken from his recent eighth album, Self Explanatory, and introducing new-gen LA vocalist Zae France.
The bling-bling imagery of 2010’s “Champagne Life” seemed quaint in cost-of-living-crisis 2022, though a rendition of “Let Me Love You” (originally a hit for Mario in 2004) demonstrated Ne-Yo’s longstanding prowess as a writer of romantic tunes. Despite such confidently catchy repertoire, though, the show’s strangely sluggish pacing and distracting visuals also jarred his flow. The stage action played out against big-screen graphics that resembled Windows 98 screensavers or out-of-sync music videos that made you feel as if you were being serenaded in a shopping mall food court.
After a surreal interlude in which two young fans shuffled onstage, and an intermission that relayed fuzzy recordings of Ne-Yo’s co-writing credits (Rihanna’s “Hate That I Love You”; Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable”), he reappeared in red threads, signalling a move into clubbier territory. The stage set exuded Laser Quest vibes rather than EDM extravaganza, but the songs were infectious pop bangers (“Beautiful Monster”; the Europop-sampling David Guetta collaboration “Play Hard”; Pitbull stompers including “Give Me Everything”).
Yet they all fizzled through the speaker system. What should have been a legacy statement became the muffled sound of a one-man brand.