[8 September 2011]
According to release schedules, I was supposed to be reviewing The-Dream’s new Def Jam album Love IV this week. But as is often the case with mainstream urban artists, contract issues on behalf of the label came to a head as the release date came closer and the album has been delayed, perhaps as far back as December. In disgust, Terius Nash, known to the world as the epic songwriter The-Dream, has taken his talents to the internet like hundreds of young, aspiring rappers have done over the past two years. Huddling in his studio with little more than his own talents, Nash decided that Def Jam and the Island Records A&Rs were not going to be the lock and key with which his music must reach the masses. Like pioneering rap artists such as Big K.R.I.T., Wiz Khalifa and J. Cole, Nash has taken to the information super highway with material equalling the quality of a commercial album in a tip of the hat/wag of the finger-esque gesture towards his superiors: in short, you should be releasing this. Or something.
1977, billed under Nash’s birth name for both vague legal and fairly obvious creative reasons, opens with a series of punches that bears Nash’s soul to us in a way he’s mostly refused to before. Gone are most of the playboy semantics, the sort of brash certification of manhood that fuels old singles like “I Luv Your Girl” and the recent nine-minute epic “Body Work/Fuck My Brains Out”. In their place are laments over a woman—presumably the gorgeous Christina Milian—who appears to have complete control over Nash’s emotions. Granted, he’s still a man of free will who recently admitted to Pitchfork “don’t get into a relationship if you’re going to leave a man who cheats on you… 99% of [men are] going to cheat”, and that sentiment surely comes across at moments throughout the album. But he’s also caught wondering whether he’s in a dream that will never end now that his girl doesn’t love him anymore on the fantastic “Wake Me When It’s Over” and stuck daydreaming about what used to be normal between them on “Long Gone”.
It’s this kind of parallel thought process that has long made Nash such a fascinating listen, even beyond the ubiquitous radio singles penned for other artists and infectious hooks and beats. Despite his immense proclivity both lyrically and personally to lean towards chauvinism—a sense that men must cheat to remain mentally healthy, for example—he’s ultimately as sensitive as any other male and quite confused as to how his supposedly natural instincts always leave him in such disappointing situations. He’s every bit the narcissist Kanye West is, and while it’s understandable plenty of listeners won’t want to hear a person go on and on about their greatness, I feel these are the type of characters that make hip-hop such an interesting art to follow.
Here is a guy whose entire free album—which took him only two weeks to record and is frequently brilliant both sonically and emotionally—is mostly about loss and regret. Yet, he also considers the actions that caused those emotions to be completely natural. More pointedly, he always ends up deflecting his faults onto the woman of his affections, wondering why the hell they’ve changed their attitude towards him so drastically when all he did was have sex with another beautiful woman. “Wedding Crasher” becomes heartbreaking in this context with Nash drunk on patron in the studio moaning over the fact he couldn’t replace a fantasized soon-to-be-married ex-girlfriend with “[his] ex, or [his] ex before that”.
Most of this album is frequently brilliant, just as catchy as Love King or Love vs. Money, while revealing a much more personal side of Nash’s considerable songwriting talents. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few duds here and these. Plenty of these songs shroud really great vocal melodies in a clumsy lyric or two. Charmingly, Nash always seems to save stumbles like “Used to Be’s” “You used to call me baby / Now all you do is nag me like a five-year-old from the backseat” for himself. And there’s definitely a couple songs that miss their mark. “Rolex” is the most egregious, full of materialistic lyrics and heavy on the autotune to a point that it just feels cliché. Especially compared to the rest of the music here, “Rolex” feels like Nash resting on his laurels and churning out a song to pad the tracklist. He does earn some comedy points for incorporating a sample of Rick Ross’ grunt into the beat, though.
The song also features Casha, a female singer who’s only previous credit to her name was a show-stealing performance on Yung Berg’s unfortunate 2008 cash grab “The Business”. She is given an opportunity on the following track “Silly” to prove she’s not as corny as “Rolex” or “The Business” would have you believe. The cover of the Deniece Williams song “Silly” is something new and refreshing for Nash’s arsenal, a lighthearted and loose R&B song that recalls the ‘80s with every note. Performed as a solo by Casha, it also improves vastly on his previous attempt to sign and write for women on his own label, Electrik Red. Like his work for outside artists like Rihanna and Beyoncé, Nash seems to understand women more than objectify them, which is certainly a more comfortable stance to hear a woman singing from.
As the album closes out, however, things get a lot more vindictive and spiteful. “This Shit Real Nigga” brings along the rarely seen rapper form of Pharrell and a banging hip-hop beat upon which both artists get their “look, motherfuckers, we got real rich over time and don’t care what you have to say about us” on, not much unlike some tracks from Kanye West & Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne. If it weren’t for the atrocious “rock” outro to the song it would have some real potential as a club hit. I suppose DJs can just crossfade right on past it. Meanwhile, “Form of Flattery” is a surprising and somewhat unnecessary dig at current internet-hype generators Abel Tesfaye (The Weeknd) and Frank Ocean. I’m not sure if I missed any drama between Nash and these guys (particularly Tesfaye), or if his invitations for them to “roll up” and threats that he’s “not better than that” are purely fantasized two-way issues. Frankly, I’d never seen either artist as a threat to Nash’s role in the R&B world if only because I can’t see them penning the sort of songs that have made Nash such an international influence, and because they obviously sing much better than he does yet occupy a much different, more hipster-oriented place in the R&B spectrum.
All in all, the second half of this free album lets the slack a little loose and doesn’t feel nearly as impressive as the opening trio, “Wedding Crasher” or Casha’s “Silly”, and it does get a little tiring hearing Nash mope over and over when we know he’s capable of much more creatively when he’s objectifying and lording over everyone in his path. But if the album weren’t free it would definitely be worth paying for the aforementioned highlights alone, with none of the filler seeming disappointing so much as more of the same. 1977 is definitely one for the hard drive.