“I’m responsible for this/Sure as the moon shines,” Ne-Yo assures his girl/boy/whatever over the percolating electro beat of “What Have I Done,” an eerie recreation of a Rod Temperton track from 1982. A specialist in masochism, Ne-Yo confuses psychobabble with honesty because in his experience girls can’t tell the difference (my experience too, but what do I know). Besides presenting itself unabashedly as one of the most Michael Jackson-indebted neo-soul records in recent memory — which in this case of this guy is saying something — Libra Scale projects, like Kanye’s My Dark Beautiful Fantasy, a not-quite-superstar’s confusion about wealth and its discontents. Instead of Jackson’s patented gulps and growls, which signified his paranoia, Ne-Yo offers a quavery high register in danger of constant interruption or disruption. The champagne life, in the words of one particularly opulent track, is something to toast while it’s happening, but, like Jackson, the arrangement — harmonies, insistent string section — reminds him of the other life the good one can’t quite anesthetize him into accepting. Speaking of anesthesia, the pathos Ne-Yo wrings from “Let me touch you without touching you” on “Telekinesis” will not still wicked tongues whispering about his sexuality, but its indiscriminate confusion makes it part of the lineage of eighties balladeering, from Luther Vandross’ “Give Me The Reason” to Bryan Ferry’s “Name of the Game.”
“Vulnerability” is a fine thing when well-deployed. Seduction is politics by another name. Although Libra Scale displays a rhythmic finesse lacking in In My Own Words and Because of You, Ne-Yo and his posse don’t come up with tunes as ingenious as their titles (how I mourn for what “Genuine Only” and “Making a Movie” could have been). I can see the seams in Ne-Yo’s jacket. If Jackson had sung a lyric like “She can reach right in your chest/Pull out your soul,” we would have felt his agony; “Cause I Said So” however remains cute wish fulfillment, like a gauche Elvis Costello fantasy about science fiction twins. It’s obvious that the champagne life has distracted Ne-Yo enough from writing the masterpiece of sustained erotic confusion that 2008’s Year of the Gentleman was; in this distracted bliss Ne-Yo can barely talk-sing the chain of platitudes of “One in a Million,” so he leaves it to bongos and the kind of understated block synth chord beloved by Art of Noise. His best vocal performance of the year isn’t even on Libra Scale. On Rick Ross’ “Super High,” Ne-Yo soars as Ross’ consigliere, the androgynous shadow who understands the tears of a clown when everyone’s around.