By Matt Caputo
By Devon Maloney
By Chris Chafin
By Village Voice
By Katie Moulton
By Hilary Hughes
By Gili Malinsky
By Bob Ruggiero
Some thought Rihanna a bit silly when she employed ella, ella, ella, eh, eh, eh as a melodic device on her 2007 megahit, "Umbrella," penned by Atlanta-based r&b sensation The-Dream. But if you listen to his work enough—and there's a good chance you do, since he's damn near everywhere—then you've already internalized ella and eh, his lyrical John Hancock, into your sonic vocabulary. A track on his sophomore album, Love vs. Money, even ends quite absurdly (and humorously) with "Lovin' on my ella/Huggin' on my ella/Rubbin' on my ella/Feelin' on my ella/Chillin' with my ella," etc. "Ella," in this case, either refers to a woman or means absolutely nothing.
Point is, you won't forget where that tic came from. Contemporary pop/r&b at its finest, Dream's 2007 solo debut, Love/Hate, coasted on catchy rhythms, audacious lyrics ("I love your girl" much?), and cohesive production, executed alongside his musical partner, Tricky Stewart. Surprisingly proficient, the album served largely as a platform for Dream's songwriting and production abilities. Like Ne-Yo before him, he fashioned himself into a hit-making double threat, comfortable on either side of the curtain. "I used myself as the guinea pig to kinda introduce certain sounds—it wasn't really about me," he explains over the phone. "It was about pulling people in. So it pulled people in, but also it blasted me to this other place, where now I'm like this underground star that certain people know about and certain people don't, and now I think everybody's starting to."
It's inescapable, the contagious condition many experience after hearing one of Dream's singles. Symptoms include, but are not limited to: constant hook repetition inside one's head; incessant humming of melody; and an overwhelming desire to hear said song over and over, whether the catalyst is "Umbrella," J. Holiday's "Bed," Mary J. Blige's "Just Fine," Mariah Carey's "Touch My Body," Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," or his own "Shawty Is a 10" etc.
The North Carolina–born, Atlanta-bred artist (born Terius Nash) got into the business of songwriting around 1998 while a member of local r&b group Guess Who; he signed his first publishing deal with Laney Stewart's Peer Music in 2003 and soon began working with Stewart's brother, Tricky. The pair have since forged a chemistry not unlike, dare I say, a modern-day Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, laying the foundation for nearly every urban pop star you consider relevant. Aside from the eh and ella thing, though, Dream would rather avoid the taxonomy of having "a sound."
"It depends on the artist," he says. "Mariah's an electric-piano girl. She's that sound. So that would be what we use when we're trying to create her records, but that isn't the sound that we would use with Rihanna. We would use synthesizers 'cause she's edgy."
Such buzzwords as "new direction," "evolve," and "growth" don't make it into Dream's description of Love vs. Money, because, truthfully, he's doing the same shit. Because it's good shit. "I wasn't really trying to differentiate it at all—I was actually just trying to grow the brand of what it is that I do," he says. "That sophomore effort, everybody always messes up on it because they feel like they need to be different, but I'm still a new artist. It's like the iPhone. It isn't that they give you a whole new iPhone so you have to relearn it all over again. Who wants to do that?"
The album retains Love/Hate's stream-of-consciousness trick of fusing one song into the next, so that "Take U Home 2 My Mama" begets "Love vs. Money" begets "Love vs. Money Pt. 2." The title track is a fast-paced money-can't-buy-love saga about showering a girl with luxuries only to end up losing her to another man: "When it came to love/I just didn't take the time/He got it right/And all this time I was kissing her goodbye." For the sequel, the heartbreakee has a quick change of heart and bids good riddance. "We all have to figure out whether we're doing certain things for the love or the money," Dream tells me. "One of them leads to the other if you do it good enough."
Elsewhere, the techno-saturated "Walkin' on the Moon" is hastened by a clanky beat and a Kanye verse, while the Mariah Carey–assisted "My Love" is a feathery number, all treble-y chords and finger snaps. In "Put It Down," Dream promises to slowly get "all up on you like a monster truck"; "Mr. Yeah," a hit single in the making (and the source of all those Ella's), features stuttered lyrics, groaning bass, and shiny chords and synths. Melody, repetition, and catchiness are Dream's deadliest weapons: "Americans are not the biggest listeners," he says. "I didn't listen, which is why my granddaddy beat me half the time. It's only when the belt is swinging at you in the same repetitive manner that you actually start to listen. So it's all about creating a belt on the song that repetitiously swings at you. It doesn't mean that in between the belt swinging, I'm not saying stuff that means something."
Great songwriters succeed at transforming the most primitive of human emotions and incidences into lyrics, and those lyrics into radio gems. (Hence Dream's nickname, Radio Killa.) Consider "Sweat It Out," a song about how black women "sweat out" our perms during sex (an R. Kelly–inspired attention to odd detail), wherein Dream adoringly advises his girl to "Call up Tisha/Your beautician/'Cause your hair is gon' need fixin'."
"A hit topic is a hit song," Dream says. "If a woman's having a discussion that's gonna last all night, to me, that's what I would write about. That's where it starts."
With his conversational, often profanity-laced tone ("I'm makin' my way through the motherfuckin' club/I got that Patron up in my muhfuckin' cup"), Dream is talking more than singing. His vocals, favoring the falsetto range, aren't stunning, but he knows his pipes aren't his greatest draw. Love vs. Money improves with each listen. "L.A. Reid had this discussion about how all stars aren't the same," he explains. "Kanye's a different star than Usher is. They were built two different ways. I'm a different star than Usher or Chris Brown. Either you are interesting or you're not. I'm just kinda crazy, so I guess that makes me interesting, I don't know. Whatever it is, it has to be something." Maybe something in the eh.