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“What rhyme with ‘asshole’? Asshole.” Thereby does Terius Nash, a/k/a deliciously absurd r&b semi-superstar The-Dream, deliver the best five consecutive words of 2010. A perfectly executed terrible joke—the hokey throat-clearing sound between the two “asshole”s seals it. And so it goes with the whole of “Florida University,” triumphant closing track to his third-straight deliriously triumphant solo album, the modestly titled Love King.
It’s a wantonly juvenile kiss-off, the song, a poppy frat-party trifle you’d despise if, like, LMFAO or Maroon Five or whoever, was behind it, particularly given the lyrics. The last line before the chorus is, “So forget you ever heard of me/This is short for ‘Florida University’ “; the chorus, designed to be shouted en masse, is “Eff you/Eff you/Eff you/Eff you.” Ridiculous. A fifth-grade sensibility at best—maybe fourth-. Plus it can’t help but remind you of Tim Tebow. No way. You know better than to find this song amusing. And yet in Dream’s hands it is profoundly amusing, and amusingly profound. The genius here lies in taking objectively terrible ideas—getting emotionally involved with this guy, for example, given his penchant for “Patrónin'” and general sexual profligacy—and making them seem like brilliant ideas.
This is the guy primarily responsible, after all, for turning the chorus “Under my umbrella-ella-ella-eh-eh-eh” into a megahit. That, of course, would be Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” which, along with J. Holiday’s (superior!) “Bed,” turned Nash and frequent writer/producer cohort Christopher “Tricky” Stewart into urban-pop tag-team royalty in 2007. Seriously, “Bed” is just staggering, sweet and lascivious and almost unbearably grandiose—the rare boudoir sex jam that also feels like a genuine love song. The template for Dream’s solo career was set, and it started immediately with 2007’s Love/Hate and continued with 2009’s Love vs. Money. The latter’s “Put It Down,” a bigger-budget “Bed” rewrite—more explosions, more CGI, more backup singers in the bed—gets at the essence of his power, perfectly fusing the sublime and the ridiculous. “I usually don’t do second verses,” Nash famously told the New Yorker, intimating, as David Byrne theorized in an admiring blog post, that after just one verse and the chorus, victory was assured, and afterward, you (not you, though) could sing whatever the hell came to mind, no matter how preposterous. The second verse of “Put It Down” starts like this:
And if they ask you, “Can he sing like Usher?,” say no
But I can make you sing like Mariah
And if they ask you, “Does he dance like Chris?,” tell ’em, “No”
But as much rubbing as we do, I could start a fire
Last year was otherwise only so-so for the guy. Beyoncé’s 2008 smash “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” yet another Nash/Stewart masterwork, lingered in the public imagination (thanks, Kanye!), but newer projects—Mariah Carey’s Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel, say—whiffed. (Don’t sleep, though, on Electrik Red, Dream’s dependably bizarre girl group, which released an album instructively titled How to Be a Lady, Volume One that consisted of audibly scantily clad women saying things that Nash apparently always wished audibly scantily clad women would say to him (“You don’t fuck us, we fuck you” and “I thought I wouldn’t really give a fuck/But now a bitch all in love,” for example). Meanwhile, Dream was huffily suggesting that Love King would be his last solo album, a threat he has mercifully rescinded, and here he is back at it, revitalized, grappling anew with the dualities of love and hate, love and money.
The latter first. “Make Up Bag” finds our hero in damage-control (and advice-columnist) mode: He’s been caught by his girl in the aforementioned act of Patrónin’, see. (Dream repeatedly hammers on the word “Patrón” as if he makes money with each repetition, which . . .?) The Make Up Bag, you understand, does not necessarily hold cosmetics. Ridiculous, brilliant. We follow that up with the bombastic “F.I.L.A.,” as in “fall in love again,” which blooms into a supernova slow jam immediately, as if you are joining a Super Bowl Champion Parade in mid-confetti-burst. “Sex Intelligent” (“I make every nigga irrelevant”) is slower, sleazier, surlier; “Yamaha,” which, from the metaphor on down, is as close you can get to remaking “Little Red Corvette” without just straight-up covering “Little Red Corvette,” details one such instance of sex intelligence. (It’s worth noting that Nash is married to Christina Milian; the Tom Ford boots he wore for the occasion are legendary. On “F.I.L.A.,” he insists that he’ll buy you both the house and the furniture, and doesn’t that just sum it up perfectly.) “Still got your name tattooed on my back,” concludes the glorious, multi-tracked “Yamaha” bridge of the one-time paramour whose actual name Dream never did catch, and you have to admit that he might not be lying about that tattoo.
For a world-class singles artist, Nash is admirably committed to the natural, elegant flow of a capital-A Album, and throughout King, we segue seamlessly from his ennui to his libido to his sexual/financial prowess and back again. “Nikki Part 2” revisits an ornery Love/Hate highlight, now softer and more reflective; “Abyss” is a moody, bitter, sumptuous kiss-off, as dead serious as “Florida University” is decidedly not. Only the seediest of the sex-god stuff fails here, as on the self-explanatory and ill-advised “Panties to the Side”: “Are you one of those that mean ‘go’ when they say ‘stop’?” and so forth. (Dream’s primary advantage over clear forebear and friendly adversary R. Kelly is . . . well, hopefully it’s obvious. He’d do well not to abandon that high ground.) “Turnt Out,” meanwhile, fares slightly better, if only for being a passable rewrite of Love/Hate highlight “Falsetto,” yet another track that ably sums up the guy’s appeal, with a still-unforgettable chorus wherein Nash, with the titular lightness of voice, impersonates the joy and abandon—”She like, ooooooh, oooooooh, baby“—of the women who deign to have sex with him.
The lesson here, as nearly always, is that Nash is at his greatest when taking himself the least seriously. Love King has an EP’s worth of digital bonus tracks, the most telling of which is “Take Care of Me,” which he pegged in an interview as his best song ever, and indeed sounds like someone trying to write his best song ever, essentially a stadium-rock power ballad (clear predecessor: Coldplay’s “Violet Hill”) that finds our hero bellowing “I will break you down” as if he’s trapped in the Thunderdome or something. You know what’s a better Dream song? “Cry,” which he allegedly wrote in under an hour—as close to freestyling as an r&b guy generally gets—for his Twitter followers in very late 2009. (No, seriously: “This is for my Twitter page,” it begins.) It’s repetitive and meandering and clearly half-assed and—you guessed it—fantastic. Let us conclude with perhaps the most romantic lines ever written:
‘Cause all the ones before told you they loved you
But I’m tellin’ you
I really fuckin’ love you, girl
And all the ones before have told you you were beautiful
But I really think you’re fuckin’ beautiful, girl