[29 June 2010]
In 2010, Terius Nash stands as an unmovable mountain, an axis upon which all of modern R&B pivots its actions and measures it’s movements. The past decade saw Nash ascend from the low-key jet fuel that provided Nivea with any sort of career to the writer of songs like Beyoncé‘s “Irreplaceable” and “Single Ladies”, J. Holiday’s “Bed” and “Suffocate”, the near entirety of Mariah Carey’s second Mimi installment, Rihanna’s “Hard” and the ubiquitous “Umbrella”, and of course Justin Bieber’s current all-ages smash “Baby”. And these are just the most memorable moments in his songwriting oeuvre, one that includes his own four-member girl group and a number of signature adlibs that have been saturated across all of urban radio.
Dream’s success as a songwriter is, at this point, unassailable. He is the undisputed Radio Killa, the man to whom one goes when a hit is really all you need. It is interesting how successful his songs for others have been, because Dream has been unable to match that success with his own singles. When he burst onto the scene with “I Luv Your Girl”, “Falsetto” and “Shawty Is da Sh*!” in 2007, Dream’s hits felt unstoppable for their uniqueness and their melodic power. But his similar-sounding hits for J. Holiday in the same period gave listeners a hot tip: Dream may be able to perform his songs, but he can’t necessarily sing them. Or, as church folk would say, he plain can’t sang. The-Dream is a constantly Auto-tuned spectacle, albeit less obviously than a Kanye West or Lil’ Wayne, and for some this ‘lack of talent’ will always be a barrier to entry. It didn’t help that Nash’s follow up record, 2008’s Love vs. Money, was a moderately dense concept record that eschewed sure fire hits in favor of a five-song suite, tributes to Prince and Michael Jackson, and a very healthy dose of catalog recycling. Critics responded, audiences and the Grammy committee didn’t, and Dream announced Love King would be his last album. An aural middle finger, and that would be it. If the industry won’t show it’s wonder boy any love, screw ‘em.
Don’t worry, I’m ready to talk about Love King. But with Terius Nash, more than any current R&B artist you need the backstory to understand where he is today. Not only because of the aforementioned catalog recycling—“Sex Intelligent” borrows key schematics from Ciara’s current radio smash “Ride”, “Yamaha” is a direct update of “Fast Car” from his debut, “February Love” makes allusions to “Fancy” in some ways while “Nikki, Pt. 2” and “Abyss” do it in others. The playful piano of “Shawty Is da Sh*!” appears throughout in one way or another. “Make Up Bag” alludes to his infamous “to the left, to the left” from “Irreplaceable”. Not only because of those things, but because without all his context one might not realize that The-Dream, as of Love King, is a conceptual character, not just a stage name. The beats on Love King ooze with Atlantan strip club ethics, and many of the lyrics are especially brooding and focused on repetitive hooks and sexual desire. The album opens with its lead single and title track, a song that on its surface feels disturbingly simple even for The-Dream but over repeat listens reveals itself to be the ultimate definition of an earworm. It’s too simplistic chorus and “Girls, Girls, Girls”/“Pimpin’ All over the World” motif are mere vehicles for Nash to flex his incredible melodic muscles over one of the few truly unique productions Love King offers up.
In doing so, he proffers that The-Dream is no longer about one hellishly aggravating woman as he foolishly hoped to be on Love/Hate, and he’s no longer worried whether women love him or the money more as on Love vs. Money. No, Dream is only concerned now about proving to all women in the world that he can love them better, treat them better, live them better. And along the path to lack of devotion, The-Dream has concocted his most candy-coated album to date. While Love King can’t boast a song suite as fantastic as that found on Love vs. Money, it does take his gift for mixing and sequencing to its breaking point. The breakneck, early ‘80s Prince funk of “Yamaha” should not properly fit anywhere on this album, but through a clever use of revved engines near the end of “Sex Intelligent [Remix]” and a very ‘80s Prom Night introduction to “Nikki, Pt. 2”, Dream is able to keep the pace up as though a song had never ended. And speaking of “Sex Intelligent”, the duo acts as a near 10-minute soliloquy on Dream’s prolific bedroom exploits despite being split on the tracklist. “Nikki” becomes “Abyss” before one can even realize, co-opting the mood change from “Fancy” to meet new needs.
There are, however, two moments not even The-Dream can render useful. “Panties to the Side” feels like a song this sort of dude would smash out of the park, but he instead uses it as an opportunity to lament his lack of marketability and inability to become the face of his own music. It’s not a very fun song anyway, and Dream’s typically vapid and simple lyrics fail to make the point he hopes to make. The song is just confusing. The closing song, “Florida University”, alludes to an earlier exclamation of “Fuck You!” directed at Nikki, but whatever steps it takes towards conceptual relevance are ruined by its tired, uninspiring Miami club setting that feels more appropriate for someone like Flo Rida, or a more upbeat, vacuous album than Love King. These songs are borderline awful. There’s also more than a few nuggets of what I like to call Dreamisms, lyrics that can only sound good in the superficial world he’s created for himself. The exclamation that he sent Nikki’s photos to TMZ is the most obvious and unrelatable, but it’s definitely not the one and only such moment. While these lyrics are clumsy, for the most part they don’t do much to actually derail the album. Amazingly, for example, he exclaims on “Yamaha”: “Still got your name tattooed on my back” not just once, but in a refrain. And it works.
The Deluxe Edition of the disc expands Love King to Nash’s magnum opus, a 17-track behemoth of audio candy. And if one were to drop “Florida University” from their playlists, “Veteran” would feel like a logical next step from “February Love”. “All Black Everything” becomes one of the disc’s highlights, with Dream setting up a date involving, of course, all black everything. Sure it’s a trendy number in the wake of Jay-Z’s “Death of Autotune”/“Run This Town” all black movement (and more recently Jeezy’s “All White Everything” single), but The-Dream captures that trend with gusto and some of his wittier lyrical turns. Even with the bonus songs, the best thing about Love King really is how seamless it is. Casual and focused listens alike come with such ease and comfort thanks to Dream’s attention to detail, and while some folks no doubt will be angry to hear Dream re-writing his own songs again, I’d counter that Nash writes one hell of a song, and shows no signs on Love King of losing that magic touch. As far as I’m aware, this is Dream’s swan song, a bloated melodic mess of sugar and exotic fruit for the ears. But he does claim to be dropped something called Love Affair this time next year on “Sex Intelligent [Remix]”, so it remains to be seen if Nash can keep his word and leave his genie in a bottle forever more. Personally, I seriously hope he’s not lying here.
The-Dream continues to be the lone artist in today’s R&B scene that seems to be able to execute a conceptual vision, and be more than a vehicle for whatever is happening and hot on the radio. Love King is, quite simply, a fantastic album, and perhaps the only mainstream R&B album worth purchasing all year. And definitely, definitely get the Deluxe Edition. It features some of Nash’s most adventurous productions and melodies to date, and really gives the album a different feel, as well as a more functional ending.