Ne-Yo may have won a Grammy for his last album, Because of You, and penned Beyoncé's massive "Irreplaceable," but that doesn't mean he's sticking with the formula. When we ran into the singer at a Tanqueray No. Ten–sponsored party for VH1's Save the Music at the Reid estate in East Hampton this weekend, he told us he's trying to change things up for his upcoming album, Year of the Gentleman. "For inspiration I started listening to stuff like Coldplay, Radiohead, some of the Beatles' old stuff." He even tried to learn how to play guitar, but it didn't take. "They didn't tell me that learning to pay the guitar hurts. Your fingers bleed and they cramp. I was like, 'This is not sexy. I do not like this.'" He gave it the old college try for two weeks before calluses started to show, "and that's when I gave up. I was like, 'Nah. I'm okay.' Playing guitar is not the hottest thing. And then when you shake a person's hand, you've got sandpaper hands. No, thank you."
Also trying to change it up? Michael Jackson, who asked Ne-Yo to write songs for his comeback album. "Yeah, Michael's putting together a new album, and I'm helping him out with it," he confirmed. According to Ne-Yo, Jackson himself called to get him onboard. "I actually hung up on him because I thought someone was playin'," he said. "'Who's this?' [high voice] 'This is Michael Jackson.' Click. Then his representative called back. 'This is Peter Lopez. I have Michael Jackson on the phone.' And I was like, 'Oh my God. Are you serious?' And then I apologized for the next ten minutes. Any comedian who has ever made fun of Michael Jackson was right on. Sad but true. He does have a very high, not very manly voice."
But in the end, Jackson managed to talk Ne-Yo into the project. "He said he had a very high appreciation for my appreciation for melody. His music is all about the melody, and that's the only sort of real direction he gave me: 'Just make sure the song is as melodic as possible. I want to get back to that.'" Jackson apparently also gave some instructions on subject matter for lyrics, but, Ne-Yo said, "it was very much keep it to yourself." At this point, Ne-Yo has written a number of tracks, which he submits to Jackson as MP3s via e-mail; then, Ne-Yo said, "he'll call me back and say, 'I really like song No. 3. Song No. 4, the hook could be stronger. Song No. 1, change the first verse. Okay, bye.' Click. And then I redo them and he's like, 'Okay, they're perfect. Send me more.' So I don't know what he's keeping, what he's getting rid of, what he's recording."
Will this be Michael Jackson's comeback album? Ne-Yo hopes so. "He's definitely trying," he said. "He's trying to get back to a place where people remember why they love Michael Jackson in the first place. In the beginning, you didn't care about Michael Jackson's personal life. It was about his dancing and his music. That was why you loved Mike. He's trying to get back there. And I'm trying to help." —Jada Yuan