01/19/2009 at 01:00 AM EST
Moonwalking around his room as a boy, Ne-Yo never thought he'd ever work with Michael Jackson. But now the King of Pop calls the R&B star about tunes they're writing together. Says Ne-Yo (born Shaffer Smith), 29, who's also penned songs for Michael Bolton and Celine Dion: "I'm sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with all the people I grew up listening to. I'm not a lowly songwriter saying, 'Please take my song' anymore."
Ne-Yo broke out of his behind-the-scenes box in 2006 with his No.1 debut In My Own Words and its smash "So Sick." His second album earned him a Grammy, and 2008's Year of the Gentleman is up for six more, thanks to hits like "Closer." Says Ne-Yo: "It's surreal. It's like, 'Yeah, I'm awake.'"
But he truly digs the one place he doesn't have to be Ne-Yo the hitmaker: the $1.15 million, split-level condo he bought in March with sweeping views of Atlanta's tony Buckhead district. "There is where I can be Shaffer Smith," he says. Born in Arkansas and raised by a single mom in Las Vegas, Ne-Yo wowed classmates after singing in an 11th-grade talent show on a dare. "This is my serene place, my escape from the hustle and bustle of the music industry," he says. In fact he doesn't even keep his Grammy in the penthouse pad (Mom has it). And the non-Hollywood locale helps. "I like the vibe here," he says. "I like seasons. It snows here."
To create a cozy and stylish feel, he's filled his home with rich tones ("I wanted warmth, so I picked fall colors"), a suede wall ("Comfort is a priority"), a caricature of Steve McQueen and lots of space for his enviable duds (see box). "It's the first time I've lived somewhere that's 100 percent me," says Ne-Yo.
Which means that his home has some Hollywood flash: At night he'll flick a living room switch for a "disco-type" light show. And his balcony makes for interesting stargazing: He can see rapper Young Jeezy's home. "Just chillin' one day, I was like, 'Is that ... Jeezy?'" says Ne-Yo. "I hit him up like, 'Yo, you probably shouldn't walk around naked—I can see you!'"
So far Ne-Yo's hectic schedule (and fear of ruined carpet) has stopped him from entertaining much, though his mom and sister took over the kitchen on Thanksgiving. ("They cooked; I ate and washed dishes," he says.) But he hopes that'll change soon: "My pad is spacious with a lot of attention-grabbers—stuff to impress the ladies!"
Exclusive: See Ne-Yo give a tour of his Atlanta condo at people.com/neyovideo