On Monday at midnight, The-Dream defied the wishes of his label Def Jam and posted a free, 11-track album at the website of his own label (and Def Jam imprint) Radio Killa Records. However, he had already made his defense mechanism available two days earlier, when he—seemingly out of the blue—tweeted, “When I’m 40 ill write Myself a Pop Smash just so I can Perform on National TV. Not that hard to do. But that’s not who I am right now.” Although this sort of anti-pop gesture has historically been common among his Best New Music-nominated compatriots, it came as something of a surprise coming from the dude who once wrote “Umbrella,” and “Single Ladies,” and Justin Bieber’s “Baby.”
So it was an odd tweet, but it was also an exciting one. Unlike those indie dudes, The-Dream has a history of both making great pop and R&B records and pushing the boundaries of those genres on tracks like the sweeping “Fancy” or its busting-at-the-seams predecessor “Love vs. Money Pt. 2.” The problem is, on 1977 The-Dream has chosen not to push boundaries but to sleepwalk through a blanched version of the sonic territory he’s already established. Ultimately, this is an album less for R&B fans than for those so enamored with the cult of personality surrounding Terius Nash that they can put up with—and even enjoy—a mostly joyless succession of tuneless laments.
At first, “Rolex” seems as if might be the return to form that the album so badly needs. But it stalls the moment it hits the first verse, which apes “Put On”-era Kanye, from its stilted flow down to its dual fashion and religious signifiers and slightly Autotuned vocals. “Pulled a black Visa, bought a black Jesus,” he at one point raps, proudly displaying all of the above.
The tuneless laments are what’s really holding this record back. Only “Wedding Crasher”—its “I hate to have to crash your wedding with this shit” much more sober than the line “This my motherfuckin’ drunk song” would suggest—survives multiple listens, endearing itself by attempting something that even approaches empathy, an emotion usually outside the comfort zone of an artist known more for his often outlandish narcissism.
Lyrically, the rest of the album rarely moves beyond sub-“Real Talk” attempts at, well, real talk. It occasionally rises to R. Kelly-level brilliance (“You used to be anti-Internet/ but now you constantly blogging and shit”) but mostly just churns out strained couplet (“If you’re surprised you’re here/ it means you shouldn’t be here”) after strained couplet (“Now all you do is nag me/ like a five-year-old from the backseat”). Meanwhile, The-Dream peppers the songs with verbal and sonic quotations from older tracks. “Mr. Yeah” gets a shout-out, as does Jay-Z’s “Song Cry”—listen hard enough and you might catch a bit of the drums from J. Holiday’s “Bed” on album opener “Wake Me When It’s Over.” And although The-Dream has a history of making these little in-references (see: the “Ellla” ‘s from the outro of “Mr. Yeah” or the climactic substitution of Love/Hate for the title album in “Kelly’s 12 Play”), on 1977 they don’t suggest the closing of one eye in a wink so much as the closing both out of creative exhaustion.
If 1977 does show The-Dream to be a touch burnt out, it’s understandable. After all, he’s spent the last four years writing not only his now-disavowed pop smashes, but entire albums for himself and for friends like third-wave girl group Electrik Red. Then again, even though he insists on calling this a “free album” rather than a mixtape, the two cuts he’s released from the upcoming Love IV: Diary of a Madman, “Body Work” and “Fuck My Brains Out” easily best all of 1977‘s non-“Wedding Crasher” tracks. His writing credit on Beyonce’s kitchen-sink bonanza “Countdown” further suggests that The-Dream remains more than capable of making great music, and proves that Terius Nash does his best work when he balances the experimental tendencies he now flaunts with the pop sensibility he’s always had.