What Makes an Album?
The difference between an album and a collection of songs is subtle, but very important to the listener’s experience. Broadly generalizing, most pop albums will seem more like a collection of songs, but usually, the best ones actually make sense as an album, either through concept or sound. Kanye West’s 808s and Heartbreak certainly had a particular concept and sound around it, and while some people hated the Autotune, no one could deny that it was his most focused album yet. For The-Dream, Love vs. Money is a chance to display his full songwriting chops, but he does it in a way that questions the role of album in a pop culture so centered around singles. In the last two years, he has produced or co-produced some of the biggest pop songs of the decade, including Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It). Both of these songs have a particular musicality about them missing from a lot of pop music, and they stand out even in the respective artists’ catalogues.
Arguably one of biggest songwriters in pop music right now, The-Dream’s second solo album has high expectations riding on it. Instead of a feature-loaded album of radio-ready singles, Love vs. Money has elements of a more cohesive album running through it. Still, it hardly reinvents the wheel. The-Dream himself stated in an interview with DJbooth.net, “This album’s gonna be the same thing—a little more beefed up, I’m just gonna give you more.” Love vs. Money is just that—an R&B pop album with great production, composition, and lyricism.
It seems as if The-Dream wants to get all the singles and features out of the way before the real album begins. The first three songs, including lackluster lead single “Rockin’ That Thang”, are decidedly more poppy than anything else on the album. “Walkin’ on the Moon” features Kanye West in one of his more hopeful appearances to date, as it appears that he has grown out of his auto-tune phase and returned to his old rapping style. “My Love” takes the slow jam feel of “Rockin’ That Shit” and puts Mariah Carey over it. Naturally, it is the second single off the album. “Walkin’ on the Moon” will be the third. In comparison to the rest of the album, these three seem like quick writes for The-Dream that just fill up space.
The album truly reaches its high point at “Take You Home 2 My Mama”, where the record enters a strain of four songs that flow unlike any R&B LP before it. Beginning with an uptempo (really midtempo, but in context one of the fastest songs on the album) song not too far removed from “Umbrella” or Usher’s “Moving Mountains”, both of which he produced, it is truly a suite of R&B that quickly covers all of the ranges that R&B can cover. “Love vs. Money”, an eight-and-a-half minute epic split into two parts, reflects on a past relationship based entirely on money, juxtaposing it with the girl’s current relationship, which is much deeper than his. Part two suddenly turns angrier, flipping the tables on the money issue and essentially characterizing the same girl as a gold digger. This two-part song is easily the best lyrical moment on the album and proves that pop music can go beyond a song-by-song structure.
“Fancy” finishes off the four-song suite with a more meditative love song, different from the energy of “Take You Home 2 My Mama” and the depression and anger of “Love vs. Money”. At six minutes and 30 seconds, it continues along the much more grandiose path of the album. Lyrically, the song takes a stab at another aspect of the relationship between love and money, telling more of a rags-to-riches story. After so many different aspects on this issue, it is hard to define where The-Dream gets his inspiration, and the album seems slightly unfocused for such a cohesive album in strictly musical terms.
Aside from this four-song suite, however, the rest of the album is basic, boring R&B. “Mr. Yeah” is the token masochistic song showing off swagger; unfortunately, this is one of The-Dream’s most insincere songs, complete with the repeated catchphrase, “Cupid ain’t got shit on me”. It makes even less sense after he admits in “Put It Down” that he cannot sing as well as Usher or dance as well as Chris Brown. The melodies, beats, and tempos of the songs all begin to sound similar by the end of the album, thus further downplaying the less intense, emotional songs surrounding the aforementioned four-song suite.
While consistently produced well and composed with remarkable flow, The-Dream’s sophomore album falls into many of the natural pitfalls of modern R&B music. Cliché love songs, too many similar beats and melodies, and a lack of energy all pull the album down, and when the album is composed in a way that should be fully appreciated in its entirety, the lack of variety affect the album’s success even more. Still, the amount of thought and effort put into the composition deserves acknowledgment, as no other R&B album in recent memory has achieved anything close to the level of cohesion the album provides after its singles.