Ne-Yo — “Closer”

Released: 4.15.08


Nobody sings quite like Michael Jackson. I don’t mean he’s can’t be imitated — the sobs and catches that his drippier performances overtaxed are grist for even the weakest parodists. I mean he is, for the most part, not imitated. His most prominent soundalikes, sister Janet and El DeBarge, are neither of them true imitators; we’ve certainly never heard anything comparable to the 90s’ legions of strident Stevie clones. Maybe singers recognize it’s nearly impossible to sound like Michael without sounding too much like him.

Ne-Yo’s own debt to MJ manifested itself gradually, his pleasant, anonymous warmth of tone finding its own contours in the grain of Jackson’s voice. Lacking both his model’s magic and his affectations, Ne-Yo’s approximation typically served him best on romantic ballads, partly because Jackson recorded far too few. But it found its fullest effect on “Closer,” where Ne-Yo hints at the exhilarated sexual terror into which Michael could tap, while refusing to allow his anxieties to assume the shape of the castrating she-demons that haunted Michael. (Nor, I should note, are Ne-Yo’s women predatory crotch-jumpers who imperil the fidelity of self-serving studs, as in Usher’s “Yeah.”)

There’s plenty of conflict in the production too. “Closer” is a struggle between two guitars, with that reverbed “Eye of the Tiger” electric ceding ground to those digitally pristine Stargate acoustic arpeggios, then surging back in for the chorus. The rhythm, a slinky two-step beat that gives way to a straight ahead hand-clappy house four-on-the-floor, adds to the tension. Yes, all this drama resolves on the chorus, as Ne-Yo’s voice blends into a synth melody with cyborg grace. Michael would have maintained the tension, because he was a genius. Ne-Yo doesn’t, because he probably likes sex more than Michael ever did.

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