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Ne-Yo

In My Own Words (Def Jam)

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It's ancient history to many of the people who are going to buy this disc, but Def Jam co-founder Russell Simmons hoped early in the label's history to revitalize R&B with hip-hop rhythms. Twenty years ago, he pulled it off with the forgotten Oran "Juice" Jones classic "The Rain," and the idea was certainly visionary, but its subsequent proliferation has rendered it stale. Which makes the debut of Las Vegas native Ne-Yo so exciting and appropriate: Not only has he revitalized the formula, he's bringing it all back home.

Of course, what makes In My Own Words work has more to do with great songwriting than killer beats (the classic Oberheim drum pattern that propels "Stay With Me" being an exception). It's enough to make an old man weep to hear a young soul artist using these big, bold, major-chord progressions, rather than the piddling minor-key vamps that have dominated urban music for so long. And Ne-Yo, who co-wrote "Let Me Love You," Mario's No. 1 hit, has a way with his own words, too: clever details like changing the answering-machine message after a breakup might not be profound, but they point to a guy who undoubtedly hasn't written his last hit.

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