The Number Ones

March 18, 2006

The Number Ones: Ne-Yo’s “So Sick”

Stayed at #1:

2 Weeks

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

In January of 2006, the Wu-Tang Clan were getting back together for their first tour since the death of their comrade Ol’ Dirty Bastard, and I tried to interview as many Wu-Tang members as possible for a Village Voice feature. This turned out to be a chaotic task. The nine surviving individual members of the Wu aren’t exactly easy to round up on the best day, and a few refused to talk to me after I wrote something that they deemed insufficiently reverent. I think I interviewed five of them, along with a few important figures from the group’s inner circle. I talked to an animated U-God outside a comic book store. I spent two hours waiting outside a restaurant for Inspectah Deck; he never showed. I got Cappadonna on the phone, which felt like a coup; I think he was still driving a gypsy cab in Baltimore at the time. But the Wu-Tang member who made me work the hardest was Ghostface Killah.

One very cold night in Jersey City, I spent four hours on the rooftop of an apartment building, waiting for what would turn out to be a 10-minute conversation with Ghostface. The wait was long, but it wasn’t boring. Ghost was shooting the video for “Back Like That,” the first single from his great Fishscale album, and there were interesting people all over the place. Dave 1 from Chromeo was there, waiting for a Ghost interview just like me. (He was writing for Vice at the time.) Members of Ghost’s Theodore Unit crew basically demanded to be interviewed and then rapped into my tape recorder, which was fun. Dazed-looking apartment-building tenants milled around, as did video technicians and Ghost’s handlers. And then there was Ne-Yo.

I met Ne-Yo, the guy who sang and wrote the hook on “Back Like That,” but I didn’t speak to him for long. Ne-Yo was small and quiet and exceedingly polite. When Ghostface and Ne-Yo jumped up on concrete flowerpot risers, posing for crane shots with the New York skyline in the background, Ne-Yo barely registered; Ghost’s innate starpower totally eclipsed him. At the time, I had some basic idea who Ne-Yo was. I knew he was signed to Def Jam, and I’d seen him give a quick guest-performance at a Jay-Z show a month earlier. (There, collaborator Peedi Crakk was the guy overshadowing Ne-Yo.) I knew that Ne-Yo had written the bulk of Mario’s “Let Me Love You.” But I didn’t realize that Ne-Yo’s involvement would turn “Back Like That” into the biggest hit of Ghostface’s career. (It peaked at #61.) And I definitely didn’t know that a Ne-Yo song would soon top the Billboard Hot 100.

There are entire industries dedicated to generating potential hit songs for pop stars. Most of the people involved in those industries, up to and including Max Martin, wanted to be pop stars themselves at one point or another. Very few of them ever make the leap. It happened fairly often in the Motown system, where everyone worked closely together to crank out as many hits and possible. It happens sometimes with rap producers, though that’s a different thing, since rap producers are almost never expected to fill studio-functionary roles. These days, Nashville country songwriters jump to lead-artist status every so often, but even there, the Chris Stapleton/Maren Morris story is pretty rare. Ne-Yo is the exception, not the rule.

Shaffer Smith, the son of two musicians, was born in Camden, a small Arkansas city about 100 miles from Little Rock, and he grew up mostly in Las Vegas. (Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” was the #1 song in America when Ne-Yo was born.) As a teenager, Smith adapted the stage name GoGo, and he formed a Jodeci-style R&B group called Envy — no relation to the great Japanese post-hardcore band of the same name. Corey Clark, the future American Idol contestant, was also in Envy, and they once got viciously booed offstage on Showtime At The Apollo.

Envy never went anywhere beyond Showtime At The Apollo, and they broke up in 2000. That’s when the former GoGo adopted his new Ne-Yo alias. He named himself after the hero of The Matrix, the idea being that he could see music the way Keanu Reeves could see computer code. Pretty quickly, Ne-Yo got himself a solo deal at Columbia, and he recorded a whole album. Columbia shelved that album and dropped Ne-Yo. Ne-Yo had co-written all the songs on the album, and Marques Houston, the leader of the teenage-heartthrob R&B group Immature, heard one of those songs and wanted it for himself. Houston recorded his own version of Ne-Yo’s “That Girl,” and it became Houston’s first solo single in 2003. (“That Girl” peaked at #63. Houston’s highest-charting single, the 2003 R. Kelly/Joe Budden collab “Clubbin,” peaked at #39.)

When Ne-Yo lost his Columbia deal, he gave up on being an artist himself. Instead, he figured he’d make his living as a behind-the-scenes figure. Ne-Yo is what’s known as a topline writer. He doesn’t make instrumental tracks. Instead, he’s responsible for words and vocal melodies. In his early career, Ne-Yo wrote for artists like Mary J. Blige, B2K, and Faith Evans. He once tried to work with Dr. Dre, but Dre turned his contributions down. Scott Storch, Dre’s keyboard player and co-producer at the time, liked Ne-Yo’s work and invited Ne-Yo to collaborate with him in Miami. That’s the gig that led to working on Mario’s “Let Me Love You,” the song that turned out to be Ne-Yo’s big break.

There are a couple of different stories about how Ne-Yo got signed to Def Jam. Some sources say that Ne-Yo auditioned for Jay-Z, who’d become a Def Jam president during his fake retirement. In a 2021 Billboard interview, though, Ne-Yo says that he actually visited the Def Jam offices to pitch songs that he’d written. Ne-Yo sang on the demos, and Def Jam A&R Tina Davis was impressed with what she heard. She asked him to sing on the spot, and then she brought him to LA Reid. Reid offered Ne-Yo a deal that day.

Ne-Yo had been through the major-label system already, and he was making a good living as a songwriter, so he was reluctant. He says he told LA Reid, “I need you to understand that I want this, but I don’t need this. I’m not about to let y’all change me into something that is the complete opposite of who the hell I am.” Reid’s response: “I like what you do already. Why would I change you?” This was what Ne-Yo had been wanting to hear.

Ne-Yo recorded “So Sick,” the song that would take him to #1, with Tor Hermansen and Mikkel Eriksen, the Norwegian production team known as Stargate. Hermansen and Eriksen both grew up loving American rap and R&B, two genres that never came easy to most of their fellow Scandinavian pop-song specialists. (Max Martin, it’s worth remembering, thought “Baby One More Time” was an R&B song, and he initially offered it to TLC.) Stargate got their start working with British pop artists, and some of their productions were huge hits on the UK charts in the Y2K era. S Club 7, for instance, reached #2 on the UK charts with 1999’s “S Club Party,” while Hear’say got to #1 with “The Way To Your Love” in 2001.

Those Stargate tracks might’ve been big in the UK and Europe, but they weren’t hitting in the US. The Stargate guys got a few gigs remixing American rap and R&B songs, cleaning and brightening those tracks up for European audiences, but they didn’t get to work with those American artists directly. Early in the decade, Stargate did make a few dents in the Hot 100. “So In Love With Two,” a 2001 track that Stargate produced for the former child actor Mikalia, peaked at #25. But when Stargate felt that they were cooling off in the UK and tried flying out to New York, they couldn’t even find anyone to take meetings with them.

Stargate managed to connect with Ne-Yo through something like sheer luck. The Stargate guys spent $20,000 to rent a spot in New York’s Sony Music Studios for a week, and that’s where Ne-Yo was putting together his album. John Seabrook’s great 2015 book The Song Machine describes Stargate’s manager running into Ne-Yo in the studio hallway and begging him to hear what the Stargate guys had done. In a 2018 Entertainment Weekly interview, Mikkel Eriksen describes something even more random: “[Ne-Yo] was working in the same Sony studio as us, having some meeting, and the CD player didn’t work, so he asked to use our room for his meeting. We had the opportunity to play him some of our music.” So maybe Ne-Yo got his #1 hit because of a busted CD player.

Eriksen says that Ne-Yo was surprised to learn that these guys were capable of writing “such sultry music.” There’s a great Ne-Yo quote in The Song Machine: “I walk into the room and I see two tall lanky Norwegian guys, and clearly I was a little skeptical.” At that point, the whole Scandinavian pop-song factory system was well-known, but R&B is its own thing, and it requires a delicate touch. Conventional wisdom says that you need to grow up with R&B to make R&B. Still, Ne-Yo loved what he heard from Stargate. It was exactly the sound that he wanted. In the Seabrook book, Ne-Yo talks about hearing the “So Sick” beat for the first time: “When the track started, I teared up.”

The Stargate style definitely owes something to Scott Storch and Jermaine Dupri. It’s clean and fluid and melody-focused — clearly rooted in American R&B, but still a bit antiseptic. Maybe that sound worked so well for Ne-Yo because of its unobtrusiveness. Stargate tracks don’t typically demand tons of attention. They’re mathematically precise — a quality that a craftsman like Ne-Yo must’ve appreciated. When Ne-Yo heard that Stargate track, he wrote “So Sick” in 20 minutes.

“So Sick” is, at least on some level, a song about songs. Ne-Yo’s narrator is in a deep funk after a bad breakup. He’s so sick of love songs, so tired of tears, so done wishing you were still here. He said he’s so sick of love songs, so sad and slow. So why can’t he turn off the radio? Presumably, this Ne-Yo narrator is so sick of songs like “So Sick” — the music that reflects his own unhappiness right back at him. Those little meta touches often work great in heartbreak songs; Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” does the exact same thing. Unlike Mariah, Ne-Yo never names the love songs that he’s sick of hearing. They could be any sad, slow love songs.

Ne-Yo sings “So Sick” with a soft tenderness that never gets too churchy. Ne-Yo can definitely sing, but his voice isn’t tremendously distinctive. Ne-Yo never goes too nuts on melisma. Instead, he connects through tenderness and writerly specificity. Ne-Yo’s voice slides over Stargate’s synthetic harps and wobbly bass-hits. “So Sick” is a ballad, but the beat isn’t slow or ponderous. The song moves. You might even dance to it, if dancing didn’t violate the entire idea of the song.

The opening line from “So Sick” is a vivid image that could’ve just as easily come from a great country song: “Gotta change my answering machine, now that I’m alone/ ‘Cause right now it says that we can’t come to the phone.” He doesn’t even emphasize the “we.” He just lets it linger. Later on, Ne-Yo sings another line that hits just as hard: “Gotta fix that calendar I have that’s marked July 15th/ Because since there’s no more you, there’s no more anniversary.” That’s just good writing.

Ne-Yo has said that he wrote “So Sick” about a relationship that ended badly, and he makes reference to a moment that must’ve been awfully rough. On the gorgeously sleek bridge, Ne-Yo begs the radio to just stop: “Don’t make me think about her smile or having my first child.” In 2005, Ne-Yo’s girlfriend gave birth to a baby, and Ne-Yo later found out that he wasn’t the father. After that, you might get sick of love songs, too.

“So Sick” is a beautifully written song, and the singer and producers all clearly know what they’re doing. In a lot of ways, “So Sick” is almost mathematically perfect, and I can’t help but admire its craft. But “So Sick” might be too understated. The song doesn’t have a ton of personality, and the sharp little details only pop out when I’m paying close attention. It’s a song about feeling desperately vulnerable, but Ne-Yo doesn’t sound passionate. He sounds sad and resigned, and his voice is matter-of-fact. I like my heartbreak songs a little more visceral. Maybe that’s a personal thing. “So Sick” is clearly a good song, but it never becomes great, at least for me. I think the restraint holds it back.

“So Sick” wasn’t Ne-Yo’s first Def Jam single. It might’ve never even been a Ne-Yo song; Jay Sean, a singer who will eventually appear in this column, later claimed that Stargate had offered him “So Sick.” (Jay Sean says his managers turned the track down without telling him.) Late in 2005, while Ne-Yo was still working on his debut album, he released “Stay,” an uptempo party track that featured some energy-bomb verses from Peedi Crakk; that’s the song that I saw Ne-Yo and Peedi perform at that Jay-Z show. Even when “Stay” came out, though, Ne-Yo was teasing “So Sick.” At the beginning of the “Stay” video, we see Ne-Yo writing “So Sick,” singing the song softly to himself while scribbling in a notebook.

“Stay” basically sank without a trace; it didn’t even make the Hot 100. But Def Jam still gave “So Sick” a big push. Ne-Yo filmed one “So Sick” video, but LA Reid didn’t like the way it turned out. In that Billboard interview, Ne-Yo says this was Reid’s reaction: “This video is not big enough for this record… Let’s get the big dogs in here.” So Hype Williams, the biggest of dogs, came in to direct a second “So Sick” video, filming the whole thing at a fancy ski chalet in Aspen. Ne-Yo’s labelmate LL Cool J, a guy who’s been in this column, recorded a “So Sick” remix and put it on his 2006 album Todd Smith. Ne-Yo’s label boss Jay-Z also made a “So Sick” remix, and this was during the period when Jay was supposedly retired. Jay phoned that verse in pretty hard, but this was a moment when every Jay verse felt like an event.

“So Sick” did what it had to do. The song took off, and it set Ne-Yo up beautifully. Ne-Yo’s debut album In His Own Words — the marketing really played up Ne-Yo’s songwriting background — debuted at #1. Eventually, that album went double platinum. Another single, the Stargate production “Sexy Love,” made it to #7. (It’s a 6.) Ne-Yo and Stargate kept working together, and that partnership proved hugely successful for years. Ne-Yo kept writing songs for other artists, usually in collaboration with Stargate. Some of those songs became gigantic hits, and we’ll cover a couple of them in this column.

“So Sick” wasn’t just a hit in America; it also went #1 in the UK, and it was huge across Europe, a place where American R&B singers often struggle. (Maybe Europeans responded to the precision of what Ne-Yo and Stargate did together.) Back in the US, “So Sick” and “Sexy Love” powered In My Own Words to double-platinum status. Stargate also produced “Because Of You,” the lead single and title track from Ne-Yo’s 2007 sophomore album, which made it to #2. (It’s an 8.) That same year, Ne-Yo made his big-screen debut with a decent-sized role in Stomp The Yard, a fun movie that’s basically a sports flick about stepping competitions. Over the next few years, Ne-Yo took a few more movie roles, and he sang on hits from Fabolous, Plies, Keri Hilson, and Rihanna.

Ne-Yo never really came off as a star. He was handsome and charismatic but unassuming. He’d started going bald as a kid, and so his main visual trademark was his ever-changing hat situation. Still, Ne-Yo kept making hits. As Euro-style dance-pop took over the American charts at the end of the ’00s, Ne-Yo and Stargate figured out how to incorporate that sound into what they were already doing. I love “Closer,” the lead single from Ne-Yo’s 2008 album Year Of The Gentleman. It’s basically a full-on house track, but it still sounds like a Ne-Yo song. (“Closer” peaked at #7. It’s a 9.)

Eventually, Ne-Yo went full-on EDM, leaving R&B behind entirely. At the time, that was a smart commercial move, though those tracks don’t really sound like Ne-Yo songs anymore. In 2012, Ne-Yo made it to #6 with the chintzy, hammering “Let Me Love You (Until You Learn To Love Yourself),” which weirdly recycles the title of the big Mario hit that Ne-Yo co-wrote. (It’s a 6.)

I can’t really fault Ne-Yo for jumping into EDM with both feet, since he made that transition work. Unlike a lot of other R&B singers who attempted EDM, Ne-Yo never seemed like he was holding his nose. As a club guy, Ne-Yo kept showing up on hits, too. After “So Sick,” Ne-Yo never made it back to #1 as a lead artist. But as a guest singer on an EDM track, we’ll see Ne-Yo again.

GRADE: 7/10

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BONUS BEATS: Here’s Fall Out Boy frontman Patrick Stump singing an acoustic “So Sick” cover and sounding a lot like Michael McDonald in a 2006 visit to the BBC Live Lounge:

(Fall Out Boy’s highest-charting single, 2007’s “This Ain’t A Scene, It’s An Arms Race,” peaked at #2. It’s a 4.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the Kid Laroi’s 2020 track “Need You Most (So Sick),” which is basically half a “So Sick” cover:

(The Kid Laroi will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s the late Pop Smoke rapping over a “So Sick” interpolation on his posthumous 2021 Chris Brown collaboration “Woo Baby”:

(Pop Smoke’s highest-charting single, the 2020 Lil Baby/DaBaby collab “For The Night,” peaked at #6. It’s a 6. Ne-Yo’s Stomp The Yard co-star Chris Brown has already been in this column once, and he’ll be back.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Weirdly, three prominent rappers all used “So Sick” samples or interpolations on tracks that came out last year. Maybe they were all biting Pop Smoke, or maybe “So Sick” was just in that exact right nostalgia zone. First off, Pop’s Brooklyn drill peer Fivio Foreign used a “So Sick” sample on his track “Love Songs,” with Ne-Yo himself guesting. Here it is:

(Fivio Foreign’s highest-charting single as lead artist is the 2021 Polo G/Lil Tjay collab “Headshot,” which peaked at #42. That same year, Fivio got to #11 as a guest on Kanye West’s “Off The Grid.”)

Now here’s Lil Durk rapping over the “So Sick” piano melody on his track “Unhappy Father’s Day”:

(Lil Durk’s highest-charting single as lead artist, the 2021 Morgan Wallen collab “Broadway Girl,” peaked at #14. Durk also got to #2 as a guest on Drake’s “Laugh Now Cry Later” in 2020. That one is a 6.)

Finally, just last month, A Boogie Wit Da Hoodie used a “So Sick” sample on his song “Turn Off The Radio.” Here it is:

(A Boogie’s highest-charting single, the 2020 Roddy Ricch/Gunna/London On Da Track collab “Numbers,” peaked at #23.)

The Number Ones: Twenty Chart-Topping Hits That Reveal The History Of Pop Music is out now via Hachette Books. Every chapter will remind you of what used to be, except maybe the BTS one. You can buy it here.

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