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Assessing Love vs. Money upon its March 2009 release, I regarded The-Dream's lyrical obsession with name-brand luxury goods as evidence of a heart as cold as the moon on which he claims to walk on the album's Kanye-assisted single. (Further evidence: "If you got a booty, shorty, show me your thong." Poor form, bro, even when you're throwing down with Lil Jon.) Yet after nine months of continued listening—and several viewings of a fascinating TheLifeFiles.com interview wherein the man born Terius Nash describes his wedding-day outfit in lovingly meticulous detail—I think I've got a firmer grip on this self-anointed Radio Killa. Unlike plenty of his power-hungry hip-hop peers, The-Dream doesn't wield his Dolce and his Louis and his Tom Ford equestrian boots like top-dollar truncheons; instead, he uses the stuff as designer armor to protect what may actually be r&b's most self-consciously sensitive soul. In a year conspicuously absent an album of Kanye's own, Love vs. Money illuminated the violence of vulnerability more compellingly than any other.
Well, any other that didn't sound exactly like The-Dream wrote it, that is. Although his and his producing partner Tricky Stewart's highest-profile studio project, Mariah Carey's Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, didn't quite deliver on its artistic and commercial promise, 2009 was deeply saturated with his sensibility anyway. Consider "Number One," the latest triumph from longtime inspiration/foil R. Kelly, whose seminal debut so affected The-Dream that he titled one Love vs. Money cut "Kelly's 12 Play." (The two slow-jam specialists carried on a kind of flirty intertextual back-and-forth all year. Speaking to Entertainment Weekly about his album's Grammy snub shortly after the release of Kelly's Untitled, The-Dream expressed his perfectly reasonable outrage by more or less quoting the Kelly disc's "Like I Do": "I don't know how to dunk. I don't know how to throw a football 50 yards. But I know how to write some motherfucking r&b songs!")
My favorite 2009 Dream knock-off was the title track from Robin Thicke's Sex Therapy, an intoxicating Polow Da Don production in which the sitcom-star scion flips Lesley Gore's "It's My Party" atop a steamy shower-stall synth wash. "It's your body, we'll go hard if you want to," Thicke croons lusciously. "As hard as you want to, soft as you want to." Recognizable sonics aside, this is an acutely familiar Dream theme, one that crops up nearly as appealingly on "Birthday Sex" by the crafty Windy City newcomer Jeremih, who advertises action and passion in equal measure while riding a sensual talking-drum groove seemingly lifted from J. Holiday's "Bed," one of Dream's earliest (and still finest) hits.
There were also, of course, The-Dream's own gigs, which, for the most part, were more notable last year when he was writing for men than for the women who facilitated his ascension to behind-the-boards royalty. Snoop Dogg's "Gangsta Luv," for instance, occasioned a moment of sweet light-funk effervescence on Malice N Wonderland, an otherwise workmanlike effort from hip-hop's least motivated MC. How to Be a Lady: Volume 1, by The-Dream's woefully underpromoted girl-group Electrik Red, provided some cheap distaff thrills, not the least of which was getting to hear lines like, "Ooh, shit, damn" sung oh-so-sweetly over early-'90s throwaway Prince licks.
So what does The-Dream's ubiquity (in both its real and virtual iterations) mean for r&b? For starters, it speaks to a newly accelerated star system: Remember that "Umbrella," the Rihanna smash that'll probably be paying the guy's bills until he's dead, only came out in 2007; his and Stewart's other cross-over triumph, Beyoncé's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)," surfaced roughly 16 months ago—crazy recent when you consider how inescapable their signature style now seems. (In contrast, two years after he helmed Ginuwine's "Pony," Timbaland was still doing time on albums by Playa and Nicole.)
Yet The-Dream's real accomplishment is the tonal shift he's triggered throughout his chosen field—and I do mean "throughout his chosen field." Despite the fact that it failed to seduce Pazz & Jop's sizable Animal Collective contingent—never mind the Playskool-emo through-line connecting AC's "My Girls" and Dream's "My Love"—Love vs. Money received the most points of any album per ballot "by a wide margin," according to the Voice's statistics guru. Those who liked it really liked it; those who voted for it really voted for it. In other words, r&b devotees grasped the significance of what the dude has done, even if "Trapped in the Closet" tourists didn't.
Is that a disappointment? Sure—but for an evolving Pazz & Jop constituency whose indie-rock chauvinism continues to deepen, it's certainly no shock. That said, even someone resigned to the genre's rock-crit marginalization (a thousand Wurlitzers swoon) has to scoff when "Stillness Is the Move"—the perfectly lovely Dirty Projectors number that earned an affectionate redo by Beyoncé sis Solange Knowles—is celebrated as the year's finest r&b song, with more than twice as many votes as "Pretty Wings," Maxwell's diaphanous comeback jam. No disrespect to the xx, whose sleek goth-groove debut finished seven spots ahead of Maxwell's BLACKsummers'night, but is our need for baby-making music really now being met by a group of sickly looking Brits?
Considering how unclear it is where The-Dream is headed in 2010, they may soon be all we've got. His squalling contributions to Rihanna's Rated R—particularly "Rockstar 101," the dark grunge-crunk jam in which she makes the unlikely announcement that she "don't really give a fuck"—signaled a definite break from the warm and cuddly vibe of "Umbrella." And Jennifer Lopez's late-fall comeback jam, "Louboutins," was wack-wack-wack. Making matters fuzzier still, The-Dream has threatened that this year's reportedly forthcoming Love King will be the last album he releases as a solo artist.
Even if he fades away as quickly as he appeared, though, fans can take solace in the fact that we'll always have "Pregnant," the full-circle Untitled closer that finds R. Kelly paired with The-Dream and Thicke—oh, and Tyrese, too—for a state-of-the-art master class on the Weird New Sensitivity. The song's conceit is classic Kelly: Our narrator's at the club scoping the scene for potential one-night stands—"See, I'm a player, so I ain't trying to take her on no dates," he explains—when he spies a chick "with an unbelievable booty," which leads somehow to fantasies of "this big old house with a picket fence and a dog." (A dog!) Yet it's Thicke and The-Dream who flesh out the scenario so wonderfully: First, Thicke promises, "If you choose me, I guarantee that the rest of your life would be man-drama-free," then The-Dream suggests putting "those pills on chill" before telling his baby-mama-to-be, "I'm-a take care of you, and I'm-a still hold you like we brand-new/So don't get it twisted/For 30-something weeks I'm still gon' hit it."
A Prada-wearing papa whose carnal understanding exceeds his demand for mathematical precision? How could so many of you resist this guy?