R&B singer Ne-Yo’s just released video and single evokes a sense of nostalgia for what could have been. The song captures a sentiment many people are feeling these days and it’s a classic scenario they’ve come to expect in Ne-Yo’s videos over the past two decades – with guilty pleasure.
His songwriting skills remain top tier but is it possible that his delivery has gotten better?
Motown Records/Compound Entertainment calls What If “Ne-Yo’s first new single of 2021,” suggesting that there will be at least one more single release to come before the end of the year for the three-time GRAMMY-winning artist. Usually when that happens, a full album is not far behind.
It feels like fans are being given a taste of what’s to come with What If, which can satisfy their longing for some Ne-Yo magic, or work them into a wistful sense of nostalgia, waxing and waning over their own lost loves, remembering, fondly or not, their broken hearts or breaking someone else’s.
What if we never let it go? What if we were way too young to know? What if you never left that night? What if I never let you go? What if you could only read my mind? What if I never let you board that flight? What if our love didn’t fade? as Ne-Yo asks.
The lyrics sound really depressing, but I’ve been dancing around my kitchen to What If bouncing off my prefrontal cortex. It’s been days since I first heard it. What If goes straight from the hippocampus to the hip.
The video is lade heavy with symbolism, from the rain clouds, stormy weather, Ne-Yo’s sombre lyrics, to the artist singing behind a pane of shattered glass representing a broken heart. As the story unfolds the lyrics reveal whose heart was broken.
The storyline for the video is more abstract. If you were to watch it for the first time with the sound turned off, you wouldn’t be able to accurately guess what was happening.
The usual plot, we’ve come to expect from Ne-Yo is missing this time. Many of his videos are like movies, with plot twists, surprise endings and cliffhangers where the story rolls over into another video for another song and lead characters in one video appear in minor roles in another.
Ne-Yo channels Michael Jackson channeling dance moves from actor Gene Kelly in the film Singin’ in the Rain. The mood on set was more Jackson’s style, bleak, against a backdrop of tumultuous skies, flashes of lightening, cumulus clouds and rain. Ne-Yo’s troupe of background dancers wearing slick black raincoats and fishnet garters splash about in a large puddle of water.
For What If, the team partnered with Shutterstock for special-effects visuals and behind-the-scenes photography to produce, what essentially is a black and white short film, reminiscent of the production that went into John Landis’ Thriller for Jackson – but much shorter.
“For Rihanna, he wrote ‘Unfaithful‘, ‘Russian Roulette,’ and ‘Take a Bow.’ He wrote Beyoncé’s 2006 breakup anthem ‘Irreplaceable.'”
Ne-Yo’s voice is as smooth as silk and flows effortlessly on this track, as if he’s grown more confident and certain of his skills. The song was recorded in London with producers Ebenezer and Magnus Klausen. Curtis “Sauce” Wilson produced the vocals.
What If is an Afrobeat-infused dance floor inspiration that follows up on a slower, much sexier sound on U 2 Luv, Ne-Yo’s 2020 collaboration with Jeremih.
Had this song been released earlier in the year, it would have been the song of the summer worldwide. We can only ask what if?
Ne-Yo has already sold over 20 million albums worldwide and earned himself three GRAMMYs from a total of 14 nominations so far. His first single, 2005’s So Sick, hit No. 1 on Billboard and was certified quadruple platinum. Since then, he has released a string of hit singles, including Sexy Love, Closer, Because of You, Miss Independent and Push Back, featuring Bebe Rexha and Stefflon Don.
Gentleman of many hats
Long before the Las Vegas native turned 39 this summer, he proved to be as powerful with his pen as he is in the recording studio and on stage. Ne-Yo is known among his peers as the go-to hitmaker who writes songs for other luminaries, not just for himself. For Rihanna, he wrote Unfaithful, Russian Roulette, and Take a Bow. He wrote Beyoncé’s 2006 breakup anthem Irreplaceable and songs for many more artists, including Jennifer Hudson, Usher, Carrie Underwood and Celine Dion.
Beyond being a triple threat, Ne-Yo wears as many hats in his career as he does in the video for What If, garnering film and television credits over the years as a judge working alongside Jennifer Lopez and Derek Hough on the reality TV series World of Dance, appearing on The Mindy Project comedy series, composing music for Save the Last Dance, acting in Battle: Los Angeles with Michelle Rodriquez, in another dance-focused film Stomp the Yard and George Lucas’ Red Tails, about the Tuskegee airmen.
Taking a career cue from Michael Jackson again, he does The Wiz Live! He was able to write, produce music and act in Step Up: High Water, the TV series based on the films. In Empire, he was in the role of songwriter/producer behind the scenes, and was also in front of the camera – as himself.
Rarely does Ne-Yo have to wonderwhat if? The gentleman seems to do it all.
by Cherryl Bird – Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Twitter @ladycbird | Instagram @cherrylbird