Originally published November 2009
Terius ‘The-Dream’ Nash is, in his own words, a “factory”.
An average work day will see him go into the studio and pen as many as 15 songs; recently, a video was uploaded to YouTube in which Nash created two demos from scratch in just two hours. Nash attributes his prodigious rate of creativity to the work ethic instilled in him by his grandfather, who raised him while his mother would work as many as three jobs at a time: “My grandfather was real hard on me about working and just being busy. He was a mason here in Atlanta.” Nash waves his arm. “Most of the buildings here, he probably had something to do with.”
As his grandfather was to Atlantan masonry, so his grandson has become to the edifice of contemporary pop. You may not yet be familiar with The-Dream’s name, but you assuredly know his songs: he is the man who got Mariah to trill about Youtube (‘Touch My Body’), Beyoncé to start a dance craze (‘Single Ladies’), Ciara to compare herself to a McDonald’s bun while singing soprano (‘High Price’) and, most famously, Rihanna to raise her ‘Umbrella’.
“Love and money: those are the two things we wake up, we breathe in and we breathe out every day, and we try to get. It’s one or the other, there’s no in between.”
Artists from Mary J Blige to Jamie Foxx have queued up to get a piece of Dreamery; if anything, the added demand has prompted the man to raise his game even further. A solo album, Love/Hate, emerged at the end of 2007; its expansive, space-age blend of R Kelly, Prince and Babyface was noticed by few but acclaimed by those who did. It is hard to believe that Nash has any spare time at all, but it transpires that he is also a painter and sculptor – “50% abstract, 50% real life” – with his work displayed and sold under a secret alias.
2009 finds The-Dream stepping up to the summit of R&B by putting himself firmly in the spotlight. His second solo album, Love vs Money, is a high-concept opus based around those titular twin pillars. “Love and money: those are the two things we wake up, we breathe in and we breathe out every day, and we try to get,” states Nash. “It’s one or the other, there’s no in between.”
“I want you to be thinking: I love what he’s saying, but what is he talking about?”
Taking in ambition, seduction, rejection, recrimination and, finally, an uneasy validation, the album flings itself across the gamut of emotions with abandon, and sets this to state-of-the-heart production which ranges from pristine executions of current R&B radio trends to some of the most avant-garde beats on offer right now. Its singles boast rolling, generous synths, gliding 4/4 beats, tinkling music-box confectionery and glittering star cameos; its slow jams are both sensuous and hilarious, in the manner of prime R Kelly. Midway through, the album lurches on its axis with two lavishly arranged title tracks delineating the decline and fall of a relationship: on Part 1, all machine-gun beats and tectonic synths, The-Dream castigates himself for his material focus: “I am to blame – instead of loving you, I was making it rain.” Part 2 sees guilt turn into bitter recriminations over melodramatic orchestration and a stately, martial rhythm: “Didn’t hear you scream no when you was trickin’ off my money.”
Though gossip has it that the emotional turbulence of Love vs Money was inspired by the breakdown of Nash’s three-year marriage to R&B singer Nivea in 2007, he is reluctant to go into details – perhaps understandably, given that current flame Christina Milian drapes herself across his knee for the duration of the interview. Nonetheless, he seems to go out of his way not to apportion blame: “It wasn’t really personal, it was more…a feeling. That person probably didn’t do it thinking they did it, but that was what I was thinking. I don’t even know if they know it or not.”
This is perhaps unsurprising, given that one hallmark of The-Dream’s songwriting is his ability to take multiple perspectives on one situation or concept. “There are so many levels of how I try to attack a record when I’m writing, or how I want you to view it,” he says. “What’s most important is that I can get at least two angles out of everything, so it’s not just me saying something and that’s all there is to it. I want you to be thinking, is it this? I love what he’s saying, but what is he talking about?”
“The American Dream is about bettering yourself, not your possessions.”
This approach is exemplified on the centrepiece of Love vs Money, ‘Fancy’: a quietly epic resolution to the sturm und drang of the title tracks’ conflict and maybe the most astonishing R&B song of the year. It begins with the realisation that “she made her way from nothing – can’t fault her for wanting something”, and thence leads into an impossibly romantic, Great Gatsbyesque paean to aspiration. Electric piano chords shimmer, like a mirage, and an accordion drifts sadly and vaguely in the background as The-Dream croons about “trips to Monaco, designer names from head to toe”, before the track builds to an astonishing, heart-in-mouth climax: after six minutes of slow-burning reverie, The-Dream finally drops the beat in its closing 20 seconds, an audacious and thrilling stroke of genius.
“‘Fancy’ is about the girl that’s working at McDonald’s or wherever and wants to see the world,” explains Nash. “And there’s nothing wrong with that, cuz I was the same. I was that guy that looked at Bentleys when I was working on a regular job. Wanting to live fancy – I grew up in the 80s, so whether it’s the flashy cars or the nice clothes – you want it, even if you were born into a situation where you couldn’t have it. So I’m saying that there’s nothing wrong with women wanting certain [material] things from a guy – that’s the dream. And that’s my name.”
“It’s a recession, ain’t nobody got to fuck for tracks. We basically giving them away.”
That said, he has been quick to stick up for Milian – to whom he announces his engagement a few weeks after the interview – against such accusations. With her own singing career stalled since her departure from Def Jam in 2006, hooking up with Nash, who will produce her fourth album Elope, and release it on his own Radio Killa imprint, has been a professional as well as personal boon – and inevitably, the claws have come out. In an interview with the Rap Radar website, Nash sprung to Milian’s defence in typically humorous fashion: “To clear this up, ‘Oh, she fuckin’ for tracks’ and this shit, I be like…It’s a recession, ain’t nobody got to fuck for tracks. We basically giving them away. When I started to really want to build my label, I went looking for her. She’s talented and a good person.”
Perhaps appropriately, one of The-Dream’s producer stamps – phrases sung over a track’s intro to mark it as a particular producer’s work – is to lilt, gently, “The American Dream”: it is a concept which is riven through his work. In person, though, he opines that “the American Dream has gone up a couple levels now – for me, it means to be looked at like a leader. Somebody of my generation that moves it forward, beyond a house and white picket fence, beyond what it used to mean. Now, it’s about: how can I help someone else obtain a home? Or how can I help the children in Darfur? The American Dream is about bettering yourself, not your possessions.” (For the record, The-Dream and Milian hosted a Poker Stars tournament in April which raised $45,000 for Darfur, and runs a cancer foundation named after his mother, a victim of the disease, though hastens to add that “I try to make sure I’m not that person who does something and then tells everybody that they did it”.)
Returning to the subject of ‘Fancy’, Nash waxes voluble about how it became such a complex track. “It started out at three minutes, but I kept bringing it out to tweak it. It went to four minutes, then to five, then at the last minute I put in that last instalment. It was just a piano-driven record originally. We outsourced it to orchestra, and then I thought – this isn’t ghetto enough! So I started doing that lil’ rap thing at the end, and then I brought the beat on it.” Nash pauses, and grins. “Just so I could destroy this perfect picture I had painted. Just because that’s what I do with everything. It’s like buying a new Benz and putting rims on it. Ain’t nothing wrong with the Benz, there’s no need for new rims, but I’m just like – put ’em on there, put ’em on there! Just cuz I can. Just – cuz – I – can.”
Nash may use the swaggering lingua franca of hip-hop, but rather than arrogance, in person he exudes a nerdish excitement exacerbated by a somewhat high-pitched voice when he talks about such matters. Stricken with a cold and winding down from a live set at Atlanta’s Fox Theater, second on the bill to Keyshia Cole, Nash loosens up when asked what kind of live show he would put on if budget and sense were not obstacles. “Man, I’d fly helicopters! We were trying to get a motorcycle for this tour. We was gonna bling out a whole bike and drive it on to the stage at the beginning! And they said, no, you can’t do that.” His face falls. “I wanted it to be a cross between James Bond and Michael Jackson, all those intricate characters. To take movie and theatre and mesh it with music.”
“I wanted it to be a cross between James Bond and Michael Jackson.”
Nash’s sense of limitless possibility is almost childlike, and allied with his casually reckless spontaneity, it is what makes him such a formidable songwriter. The sheer level of detail is astounding: Nash’s best tracks are gifts that keep giving, boasting both immediate, unstoppable hooks and seemingly endless entertaining Easter eggs to notice later, whether in the form of an amusing turn of phrase, a gorgeous counterpoint melody or a subtle production trick. “It comes out of nowhere – [in the studio], I keep saying, don’t be so mechanical! On Kelly’s ’12 Play’, where I mimic a CD player skipping – we didn’t put that in there deliberately. It’s just how I sang it. So Trick [Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, The-Dream’s long-term writing and production partner] and I go all over the place, putting a bell here, a snap here, a whistle here, keeping it in the same key or taking the key up, turning the end of one song into another song. We’re basically in there just musically jerking off. Like, Ahhh! Yeahhh! Come onnn! Do ittt!”
Incredibly, there is even more to come from The-Dream this year. Not content with releasing one masterpiece, The-Dream has also found the time to work extensively on Mariah Carey’s imminent album, Memoirs Of An Imperfect Angel (“It’s a beautiful album, we really bonded creatively. She made me sign something though, so I can’t tell you that much”), pen a song entitled ‘Change’ for P Diddy which he promises is “even better than ‘Umbrella’, a huge record” – and, best of all, to mastermind a debut album for the girl group Electrik Red. How To Be A Lady: Volume 1 easily ranks alongside Love vs Money in terms of brilliantly realised ambition, and quite possibly outstrips it just for the extra lashings of ultra-fierce attitude the girls themselves bring to the table.
“In the studio, it comes out of nowhere.”
“When I first met them all together, their sexiness and their poise and their above-average mentality, I wanted to write about it,” says Nash. “It’s like seeing someone and wanting to write their story. They explained to me that being a lady, to them, is about how to act upon the things you want and really go and get it, and not to sit back and allow yourself to be told what to be.” It is no wonder that Nash found it easy to identify with such a definition: after all, it is the basis of his own work as well.