NE-YO has tapped into that rare parenting skill: his kids think he's cool.
The "Let Me Love You" singer, 41, reveals his brood actually make up the strongest part of his fan base.
"I know my kids love my music. I don't know about any other entertainers and their kids, but my kids actually dig my music," he tells PEOPLE exclusively. "They're actually the best people to get critiques on my music from because they're not listening to it the way music people listen to music; they're listening to whether they feel it or don't. That's very useful to me, so normally I'll run a song by them, and if they like it, I know I'm going in the right direction."
NE-YO is father to sons Roman Alexander-Raj, 2½, and Shaffer Chimere Jr., 5, whom he shares with wife Crystal Renay, and son Mason Evan, 9, and daughter Madilyn Grace, 10, from his previous relationship.
"They're very quick to tell me how much they don't like something — just as quick as they tell me how much they do," he says with a laugh.
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The artist signed up for his latest project to score "coolest dad in the world points." NE-YO just released his new song "Shake" in partnership with LEGO VIDIYO, an innovative music video maker for kids which brings together physical LEGO elements, music tracks and augmented reality.
"When they gave me a call and asked me about it, I was instantly in because my kids are huge LEGO fans and have been for forever," he says. "I had a bunch of LEGOs as a kid. I very vividly remember my mom yelling and screaming as she stepped on them in my room from time to time."
"My kids are just naturally excited. They're excited for cereal in the morning," he jokes. "It does get kind of hard to find stuff that I can do that I can include them in as well. That's why when this came through, I was in before they even really told me what it was."
"Shake" is a collaboration with DJ L.L.A.M.A., the first LEGO minifigure to sign a major record deal, and singer Carmen DeLeon. DeLeon also jumped at the chance to work with a toy brand she's been a fan of "since I was so little! My parents thought I wanted to be an architect because I always played with LEGOs," she admits.
"It's all about having fun. It's all about enjoying ourselves," NE-YO says about the upbeat, carefree anthem. "L.L.A.M.A is the kind of character that's all about that life, and the song is about dancing, about having a good time."
LEGO® VIDIYO will be available March 1. The GRAMMY-winner was excited to take part of the platform's launch since it speaks to the interests of his own kids.
"My kids are naturally creative and I think it's super cool that they have these outlets now. They're always making up stories and making little movies with with the iPad and they all love music," he reveals. "I thought I was going to be that parent that forced them towards music, but they just took to it on their own. This is just another tool for them to further both of their loves, which happen to be making movies and music."
The coronavirus pandemic has been the source of stress for many parents over the last year, and NE-YO is no exception. "It's been a little chaotic, but I've always been one to roll with the punches and by the grace of God, my family is the same way."
"But more time in the house just means more time to spend together, more time for us to enjoy each other, and more time for them to break more things," he laughs.
It's the schooling that's proved to be the most challenging aspect of having the whole family at home.
"We were doing the homeschooling thing and that worked out for a little while, until we just realized that teachers do not get paid enough money," he explains. "As the parents that just drop them off in the morning, I had no idea how intricate and detailed that job is. I really need to start a petition to get teachers paid more because they do so much."
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One very valuable lesson NE-YO has learned during this time has been the significance of quality time with his kids.
"Before this whole thing happened, I can now admit I was very much a parent that did a lot of my parenting through FaceTime and stuff like that because I was always moving and traveling and doing things to bring home the bacon," he confesses. "I didn't realize how special it is to actually get up in the morning and eat breakfast with my kids. Not just for the kids, but for me too. We get up to get our bowls of cereal. We get in front of the TV and we watch whatever cartoon is on until it's time for me to do what I've got to do."
"Just that moment means so much. It genuinely does," he adds. "I've definitely learned that some of the things I felt I had to be there for is not so necessary. I can do this over the phone. We could get on Zoom. It doesn't stop the show if I'm not there."
"Now I'm a lot less willing to just get up and go. Is it something that I have to be there for, or can we get on a Zoom call and get the same thing accomplished? Because if that's the case, I'm going to say put."
The time at home has also helped NE-YO to work out his differences with wife Renay. In early 2020, the pair had decided to go their separate ways and pursue a divorce — a decision they've since worked through.
"When the whole quarantine thing happened, initially I was just so freaked out by the whole thing. I was like, 'I don't know how long this is going to last so I'm going to go with my family.' I know we don't like each other right now, but this is where I am. This is where I'm going to be," he explains. "I need to be close to my family until they figure out what this is, so quarantine forced us to sit in each other's face and talk about the things that we probably wouldn't have otherwise."
"We found a way back to happiness, and I can honestly say we're better now than we were," he says about the current state of his relationship. "It doesn't matter how much money you make if there's no family to take care of after the fact — there's just lessons learned. Definitely."
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