At 24, Ne-Yo is only slightly older than most of today's interchangeable postpubescent R&B beefcake, but his songwriting and producing chops are already honed enough to push him beyond peers like hot-stepping but squeaky-voiced Chris Brown and the dancing-marionette erections of Pretty Ricky. (Ne-Yo penned Beyoncé's "Irreplaceable," for instance, which would earn him a line or two in R&B history if nothing else.) He was another R&B teenage autodidact, except he rarely fronts as overly self-confident (at least in his musical abilities), and he sounds like he actually absorbed a lineage that stretches back before Blackstreet or Boyz II Men. Because of You plays like an occasionally chintzy this is the era of cheap, keyboard-based beats, after all but usually lush homage to the delectable moment before its creator was even born, when soul and R&B absorbed a little (or a lot) of disco's smooth glide.
With the ersatz horns of "Can We Chill" (the Hi Records house band on a ringtone budget), the self-titled debut single, and "Crazy," Ne-Yo most effectively indulges the nostalgic fondness of a '90s baby for shuffling, hand clap-heavy '70s beats and pillowy soul signifiers: lowdown wah-wah guitar, snaking live bass lines, glitzy harp runs. But while the falsetto fillips and butch dips of his voice may awesomely approximate the skinny-hipped swagger of classic Prince on "Addicted," the blunt come-on of the chorus "No I am not/I'm not addicted to sex/But girl I guarantee/If you lay with me/You just might be" date-stamps Ne-Yo as a product of his hyper-horny, but still PG-13, R&B generation. Still, when was the last time an R&B song featured a harmonica? The lyrics may be more heavy pettin' than adult lovin' "Open your mouth and tell me where you want me"? Eww but Because of You is the first pop-soul album in eons where the grooves burn hot enough for folks well out of puberty. Jess Harvell<