[13 February 2009]
I’ve long been a modern R&B hater. I’m not claiming it’s not a valuable genre or form of music, because it obviously is, it’s just never had any musical elements that have appealed to me. From Boyz II Men to Brandy to Chris Brown, it’s always come off as boring and preposterous; all of the “whooowhoowhoooo”s and the needlessly sappy and slow songs lost my interest by the first chorus. There have been exceptions over the years; Usher, Beyonce, R.Kelly, Ciara have all nailed it on certain songs, bringing a certain energy and swagger to a typically uninspired and maudlin genre, but my feelings towards modern R&B changed a couple of summers ago when Rihanna’s “Umbrella” hit the radio (minus Jay Z’s terrible intro verse) with its heaviness, hookiness and nonsense “ella” and “ay” repetitions.
“Umbrella” seemed to have a lot more going on than previous modern R&B, with its heavy keyboards and hip hop drums. When the follow-up single came out, “Shut Up and Drive”, I realized that “Umbrella” had nothing to do with Rihanna—it was essentially karaoke—the real talent was with the writers. It’d be a while until I found out who that writing team was, and the answer drew me in to modern R&B.
When friends started talking about The-Dream’s album Love Hate (Love Me All Summer / Hate Me All Winter), I was not on board. It just seemed like typical R&B and I already had my token listenable R&B song with Usher’s “Love in the Club”. After hearing more and more of The-Dream’s debut album I realized that he was employing Rihanna’s “ella”s and “ay”s and something like Young Jeezy’s “Aaaaayyy”s. After very little investigation I found out that The-Dream (Terius Nash) and his production partner Christopher Stewart were the geniuses behind “Umbrella”, that’s all that was necessary for me to give the entire album a chance.
Prejudices can make people do odd things. I had ignored modern R&B for a decade, when I’m sure when mined there are a ton of good albums regardless of your tastes. Hearing The-Dream’s debut has given me more listening satisfaction than most other 2008 releases (it was released Dec 2007). I’m kind of glad that I was late in discovering Love Hate, because it means that the wait for more The-Dream is not as long as it is for those early adapters. So, with his new album, Love vs. Money, set for release March 10 (I wonder how close Def Jam will get to that actual date), I want to give late praise to The-Dream and Love Hate—from the perspective of a changed man. For all you R&B haters out there: if you’re going to check out one R&B album, make sure it’s this one, it’ll change your perspective.
One of the reasons this album is so enjoyable is that it’s a real album (at least until track 10) that holds together, that flows from one song to the next almost seamlessly. The lyrics aren’t outstanding but are capable and are at times quite personal and at other times quite clever. A friend pointed out that The-Dream is not an exceptional singer (which does away with any virtuosic voice solos), nor a particularly attractive guy, which is a nice change from the Marios and the Ne-Yos. There’s a ton of musical talent and thought put into this album and the fact that it was written and recorded in nine days is especially impressive.
Love Hate starts with “Shawty is da Shit!”, some light R&B/rap fodder full of powerful backing vocals and excellent ad-libbed “Ayyy”s; Fabolous is on it but don’t let that discourage you, the track is dominated by The-Dream’s half-singing-half-rapping and is a good introduction to the minimal side of The-Dream’s and Stewart’s production.
“I Luv Your Girl” falls off a bit, but is more of the same semi-minimal R&B/rap production, but has an excellent lead into “Fast Car”, the album’s stand-out dance track. In “Fast Car” the metaphor of ‘woman as car’ is nothing new, but the resolve with which it’s approached is astounding. The metaphor goes to levels where you’re not even sure if he’s supposed to be talking about a woman any more (“good on gas”?).
“Fast Car” is most notable as the beginning of the most perfect R&B set I’ve heard. “Fast Car” leads perfectly into “Nikki”, The-Dream’s most personal and emotional song on the album, and this leads perfectly into “She Needs My Love”, a lushly layered super-hit, then into “Falsetto”, the album’s highlight.
“Falsetto” hits with a clever sex-metaphor, something all too rare in R&B. Falsetto, for The-Dream, is a metaphor for sounds of the female orgasm as evidenced in the chorus: “Now I got her talking like this, in a falsetto: She like ‘Oooh, oooh, baby, ah, ah, ah, oooh”. After this incredibly consistent run of R&B songs the album turns back to pretty good songs, that would stand out on any other album but fall short compared to the R&B masterpieces we’ve already heard. “Playin in Her Hair” is pretty good, “Purple Kisses” is pretty good, “Ditch That…” is a lot better, getting into dark and heavy Neptunes-sounding production.
After this song you can stop listening.
There are no other stand outs, the album just seems to lose steam. The duet with Rihanna is OK, but a bit weak when compared to the rest of the album. Closer, “Mama” is the type of R&B that I try to avoid. Though this song manages to stay upbeat it doesn’t seem honest and is a concept (a mother speaking to her only son) that I don’t really need to see explored.
So, with this in mind, please join me in anticipation of The-Dream’s new album, Love vs. Money. We only have four more weeks to wait and focusing on his excellent single “Rockin’ That Thang”, and not his forgettable single with Lil Jon. He’ll turn you into a an R&Believer (that’s right).
Check out the highlights on the 4 Color Zack Dream a Little Dream Mixtape