Available on: Radio Killa / Def Jam LP
Terius Nash, better known as The-Dream, is beloved by all sorts of crowds for his elaborate and impossibly hooky songcraft, and his relatively young record is nothing short of incredible.
Even putting aside the solo career (which hasn’t exactly skyrocketed him to household name status, but has spawned some incredible records), he’s written tracks like Rihanna’s ‘Umbrella’ and Beyonce’s ‘Single Ladies’, which figures him as pop royalty – but far from being a hipster-friendly songsmith, he’s also written Justin Bieber’s biggest hits; is there a line between artful, well-written pop and utter crap, or does it even matter? The-Dream doesn’t make these questions much easier to figure out, though his best work is strong enough to stand on its own terms, or more accurately, tower above everything else in audible range.
Nash’s music is simply unmistakable for anything else; his songs are loaded with hooks and irresistible vocal tics, dashing off darting vocal runs that other singers would use to fashion entire choruses from. It’s a never-ending well of melody that does in fact stretch across to his writing for other singers; you can instantly tell a Dream track from the vocal melody. Thankfully, Nash is not just a backseat driver; he’s armed with an elastic voice (equal parts Prince and R. Kelly) and excellent producers in colleagues Los Da Mystro and Tricky Stewart, who help adorn his songs with futuristic, shiny R&B sounds, phased drum tracks and liquid synths, which forms the other part of Dream’s considerable appeal. If you can’t get into the pure pop pleasure aspect of it, the production is bound to grab you.
The-Dream’s past two solo albums have been minor masterpieces, grand soap operas composed of indelible pop confections; 2007’s Love Hate a looser, light-footed jaunt through upbeat numbers and sex jams, and last year’s amazing Love Vs. Money a dense and paranoid journey through the inner workings of love and money and their effects on personal relationships. They were albums so conceptually tight and perfectly sequenced that Dream’s third album Love King can’t help but seem a little inconsequential in comparison. Even worse for the album’s fate, it also comes at a pivotal point in Nash’s career, when his work with other artists is reaching a fever pitch and critical acclaim for his last two albums is finally catching up: he’s poised to break, but to whom and where it’s hard to say, especially with an album like Love King.
I’ll put it bluntly: Love King is a little disappointing – not because it’s bad, but because it isn’t the career-defining statement it was made out to be. It doesn’t feel like Nash’s best work and it has a few snags where his last two had none, but considering the prolificacy of his output (let’s not forget he was also behind last year’s incredible Electrik Red album), it’s amazing he was able to do it this well anyway. The album’s midpoint drags with the unfortunate ‘Sex Intelligent’ suite, a stretch that drones on for ten minutes, and despite some gorgeously swooning synths in the ‘remix’ section, the hooks never manage to take off and the kindling crackles flaccidly without properly igniting. By the same token, ‘Panties to the Side’ brings the album’s best streak to a screeching halt, unfortunate ad-libs and an awkward melody never quite gelling together for an uncharacteristically amateurish job.
After saying that, would you believe me if I told you that the rest of the LP is some of the best pop music you’ll hear all year? Even if songs like the exuberant title track don’t really feel like Dream’s most inspired work, it’s difficult not to sing along with the track’s hilariously misogynistic and dismissive chorus as he appropriates “half to my main girl / quarter to my side chick,” or repeats “you don’t know me like that” until its embedded in your subconscious. Elsewhere, ‘F.I.L.A.’ (unfortunately excised of its T.I. verses here) is the kind of gold Dream churns out in his sleep, verses oozing with vocal honey in his perfect, practiced phrasing. He further explores his underused falsetto for the gorgeous ‘Turnt Out’, and ‘Make Up Bag’ is the kind of slow-burning, rhythmic track that he usually avoids in favour of more obvious melodic ideas. It’s not as instantly anthemic as much of his material, but the plinking piano and hypnotic repetition of the chorus proves almost as affecting a device as his usual multi-pronged hooks.
The centrepiece of the album is the incredible three-song stretch starting with ‘Yamaha’, Dream’s most convincing Prince impression, easily besting ‘Fast Car’ – and the way it morphs into ‘Nikki Pt. 2’ and ‘Abyss’ is simply breathtaking. ‘Yamaha’ is the kind of music that can only exist in dreams, made up of the essence of fluffy clouds; Nash’s reverb-soaked vocal both engagingly omnipotent while remaining distinctly personal, tugging you by the heart as it drags you halfway around the earth. The chorus is the kind that lays eggs in your brain as it instantly and violently hooks you in, and he drives it all home with a frankly ridiculous coda which takes Prince’s mid-80s Beatles-leanings and does it far better than the Purple One himself. When the song fizzles into the delicately bitter ‘Nikki Pt. 2’, the amount of complex emotion in Nash’s voice is unparalled, and the way it slides into the bottom-of-the-sewer anger of ‘Abyss’ is exciting every single time – never mind that when he sings “I’m here to put your heart in its place / chained up at the bottom of the lake,” it’s uncomfortably believable.
So while Love King isn’t the stunning statement of finality it was made out to be, maybe it’s for the best. Originally touted as Dream’s last album (yeah right), plans for the 2011 follow-up Love Affair have already been announced, even referenced in the album’s lyrics; so maybe that will be it, then. What we have here is something like a transitional statement, or a placeholder. We see him falling on his face (‘Panties To The Side’), recycling his old tricks to great effect (‘Love King’, ‘F.I.L.A.’), and making his most ambitious music ever (the whole ‘Yamaha’ section of the album). Maybe it’s a good thing to finally witness signs of humanity in his facade of perfection, and if Love King is in fact a disappointment, it’s one of the most uplifting disappointments I’ve ever experienced. Long story short, though it may hit a few snags along the way, the dream of forward-thinking, clever, and ear-tickling R&B is far from over. We might just have to wait another year before Terius Nash completely takes over the world.