The ink on Shaffer C. Smith's Rancho High School diploma had barely dried when the aspiring singer-songwriter high-tailed it out of Las Vegas in search of California stardom. "The day after I walked at graduation, me and three other guys moved out to Cali and pursued music," he remembers.
Though the left coast has long been littered with shattered dreams, the Arkansas native—who moved to Las Vegas as an elementary schooler—insists he never worried that his goals would go unrealized. "We had an overabundance of confidence," Smith says "We just knew that something was gonna come from this trip."
Five years later, that self-certainty has proven well-founded. The 23-year-old Smith, now better known by the stage name Ne-Yo (pronounced Neo, as in The Matrix), has already achieved widespread notoriety as an R&B songwriter for the likes of Mario, Mary J. Blige and B2K, attracted the attention of Def Jam Records president Jay-Z and now stands on the brink of stardom as a vocalist. His debut album, In My Own Words, hits shelves on Tuesday, and has already shipped more than 700,000 units as the big day approaches.
"As we get closer and closer, it gets more exciting for me," Ne-Yo says during a phone interview from his LA home. "I'm trying to hold it all in, to keep myself focused on work, but at the same time I'm crazy excited."
Ne-Yo the artist might already be a household name were it not for a scuttled record deal with Columbia Records just after he arrived in California. "I had written my entire album over there, and then that deal went bad—so bad in fact that I actually asked to be released from my contract early," Ne-Yo recalls. "Their one stipulation to let me go was to keep my entire first album over there."
Discouraged by the experience but far from dispirited, Ne-Yo vowed to continue his pursuit of music as a career, with one major caveat. "I was done with the whole artist thing," he says. "I was just gonna be a writer."
Interested in songwriting since his childhood, Ne-Yo honed those skills during his three- year stint at Las Vegas Academy before spending his final high school year at Rancho. He estimates he now has between 350 and 400 songs in an archive of demos recorded by his LA-based production company, Compound Entertainment.
"If somebody comes in here and says, 'I need like this or a song like that,' if I feel that I have something to match it, then I'll let them hear the song," he explains. "If they like it they take it. If they don't, then we do something fresh."
Sometimes, Ne-Yo works with existing song elements, such as when Blige commissioned him to contribute to an upcoming track. "Her people came at me and said, 'Mary's putting together a new project, and we'd love for you to be a part of it,'" he says. "Mary had written the verses, but the song needed a hook, a chorus. So they asked me to help with that."
To date, the best-known Ne-Yo-penned hit has been Mario's "Let Me Love You," the most-played cut on rhythmic radio in 2004. In that instance, the one-time Las Vegan simply happened to be in the right place at the right time to collaborate with hit producer Scott Storch, the song's co-author.
"I met Scott through Dr. Dre, and me and Scott hit it off real quick. He said, 'If you're ever in Miami, come through, so I just happened to be in Miami one week, and it just happened to be the same week he was working for Mario," Ne-Yo says. "He originally played me the chords on the piano, but actual beat wasn't done yet. [When they finished] I knew it was gonna be something, I can't say that I knew it was gonna do what it did, but I knew that we had done something different, and I knew that it didn't sound like anything else that was on the radio at the time."
Ne-Yo continued making inroads—and key connections— throughout 2004. Then, last year, a chance meeting led him back where he started, to the idea of singing and performing, this time as a member of the Def Jam artist stable.
"The Def Jam thing kinda happened by accident ... the only reason we even went up to the Def Jam office that day was so that a producer friend of mine could be reunited with an old friend of his, and that friend just happened to be Tina Davis, an A&R person over at Def Jam," Ne-Yo remembers. "We didn't go up there trying to shop any music, trying to shop for a deal, nothing like that. But by the time I left the building, I had a record deal. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and God put me there to meet the people that I met because it was meant to be."
Ne-Yo wrote or co-wrote all 13 tracks on his debut album, and helped produce roughly half. First single "So Sick" has already climbed the charts, reaching No. 2 on the Rhythmic Top 40 and No. 6 on Billboard's Hot 100. Ne-Yo also recently wrapped his first tour, as the opening act for Best New Artist Grammy winner John Legend, and looks forward to returning to the road soon.
"It was my first major tour, with a tour bus and a different major city every night. It was crazy," he says. "But I'm very comfortable onstage. It was just a matter of getting back up there and doing it. It's like riding a bike: You've just got to get out there and do it again. I can't wait to do it again."
Once he does, he promises, audiences will witness a stage show forged by his surroundings, before he booked out of town.
"Had it not been for Vegas, I wouldn't have got turned on to music like Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. the Rat Pack, Tom Jones, Wayne Newton ... which all came from being in and out of the casinos, hearing that type of thing. I try to take a lot of that stuff and incorporate it into my stage show," says Ne-Yo, whose mother still lives in Las Vegas. "My stage show is very much like a Vegas show, where it's not just singing or just dancing. It's a little bit of singing, a little bit of dancing, a little bit of comedy, a little bit of drama, a little of everything. It's all-around entertainment, and I definitely owe that all to Vegas."