Pop: Ne-Yo, Hammersmith Apollo, London W6

For sheer pop originality look no further than chart-topping US R&B man Ne-Yo

Hammersmith Apollo, London W6

'This is officially the year of the gentleman,' declares pop R&B star Ne-Yo at the start of his rapturously received London date. 'We gonna keep it classy, sexy, charming, charismatic and smooth,' he elaborates, sauntering around in pinstripe trousers and matching waistcoat. A large stud earring twinkles from his earlobe, but otherwise, Ne-Yo - born Shaffer Smith - wouldn't look out of place at a casting for a Rat Pack remake.

Flagged often throughout tonight's show by Ne-Yo and his DJ-cum-hype man, Year of the Gentleman is actually the title of Ne-Yo's recently released third album, which entered the charts here at number two last Sunday. An attempt to raise his game and go from boy to man, it completes a hat trick of one smash hit album a year for the 28-year-old American singer and songwriter who is at the forefront of a new twist on R&B - the evolved loverman.

American R&B has long had its velvety soft side - the emotional, 'slow jam' yin to club R&B's leering yang - but Arkansas-born, Las Vegas-raised Ne-Yo has rubbed the corners off still further, transforming an already syrupy genre into mush a la new man. He is, quite simply, the wunderkind of wet.

Ne-Yo songs most often casts his protagonist as masochistically nice, turning girls down instead of hopping into bed with them, packing them off back to their boyfriends with a hug. He can dance a little, too, dipping sundry Lycra-clad women low when the need arises, falling into step with the troupe while the horn section of his seven-strong backing band tootles on. His manner is a little bit Vegas, a little bit vintage Michael Jackson. To the untrained eye, he looks rather a lot like babyfaced R&B supremo Usher, but Ne-Yo is a far, far cleverer pop Renaissance man whose songwriting portfolio is as important as his star turns.

Not that he's bad at the latter. Ne-Yo playfully dispenses his sweaty towels to the adoring crowd, a surprisingly white bunch whose demographic (late teens to early twenties) allegedly switched its allegiance to the indie-lite likes of the Kooks a few years back. Not so; pop is alive and well and currently residing in Ne-Yo's featherlight R&B.

Before Ne-Yo started topping charts on either side of the Atlantic with his debut album, In My Own Words, he was a hired tunesmith, penning hits for fellow R&B smoocher Mario, among others. Shaffer Smith didn't stop writing when he became Ne-Yo, but went on to co-write hits for Rihanna ('Unfaithful') and Beyoncé ('Irreplaceable'), often in tandem with Norwegian pop hit factory StarGate, who remain a constant on his records. They produced his 2006 debut hit, 'So Sick'. Ne-Yo's summertime number 1, 'Closer' is another fine example of the StarGate art of cutting and shutting a traditional R&B vocal on to a set of pop wheels. Fittingly, the single closes his set and stands out a mile. More like this one and Ne-Yo may start accruing the critical love that has abandoned pop R&B, since Beyoncé went off the boil and Rihanna failed to take her place in the hearts of interested bloggers.

Currently writing songs for the Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston comeback albums, Smith is a craftsman skilful enough to deserve kudos beyond the rewards of commerce. But on tonight's evidence, a show that veers from slick to endearingly bumbling, a preponderance of soundalike material from his second album, the veneration of loftier urban audiophiles is a little way off. DJ Tim Westwood is in the house and he doesn't seem very impressed.

Certainly, 'So You Can Cry' is hardly Westwood's usual thing, being a surprisingly deep puddle of slush in which Ne-Yo offers to turn away the sun's rays so that his girlfriend - that's a friend who is a girl - can weep over the cad who's run off with her best friend. It doesn't take a psychologist to work out that Smith, unimpressed by urban music's macho postures and worship of excess, was raised by a hard-working mother after his feckless father left home.

Despite his tendency to play the doormat, Ne-Yo does have a libido, too. He grapples with dancers on tunes such as 'Sexy Love', but these just don't measure up to his more romantic prostrations. Hence Year of the Gentleman, a chivalrous record that also plugs into the wider love of vintage dapperness that runs deep through urban music.

OutKast's André 3000 has just launched his own label in Harrods, turning hip hop's obsession with clothing lines into bona fide gents' couture. Ne-Yo is not quite the flâneur that André is, but he can wear a hat with panache - he flings it into the crowd at the end, prompting a feeding frenzy.

On one song on Year of the Gentleman - unsung tonight - Ne-Yo berates himself for being untidy, wondering why his hardworking girlfriend puts up with it. His current single 'Miss Independent', which tonight raises a shriek of approval that the local bats would have noted, echoes all the 'Independent Woman'-style tracks that have come out since TLC's ground-breaking 'No Scrubs' in 1999. Uniquely, it is sung by a man, in praise of those females who've paid off their car loans.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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