At this stage in the information age, with Hip-Hop and Hollywood stretched around the globe from the International Dateline to the Prime Meridian, you’d think that humankind would be largely inoculated against the venom packed into f- and n-bombs, respectively. But on “Luv Your Girl”, a sparse, rhodes-decorated lament, 26-year-old R&B crooner The-Dream enunciates both words back-to-back, with a cruel, jarring precision that defies that history. The story goes, he’s bumping and grinding up against some other man’s woman in the club, less interested in the standing lap dance she’s giving him than in the tragic picture unfolding. Everytime the girl’s boyfriend calls, she taps “ignore” on her cell phone. “F— that n—-,” she says, and The-Dream echos those devastating words over a blue and lonely snap beat. He and she head out from the club to his place — score! — but her boyfriend calls her back, and she says it again: Three heartbreaking words, with so much to say about race and romance.
That brackish mix between one man’s pleasure and another’s pain is agonizing, and The-Dream’s ability to empathize with all three parties involved sets him apart from his R&B peers — many of whom glorify clubbing as some sort of zero-sum bloodsport, played for sex. Somewhere during R&B’s gilded age, success insulated the hearts of hitmakers from the plight of lames; in R. Kelly’s worldview, if you’re struggling financially or experiencing girl turbulence, then that’s just one more woman on the market/dancefloor for him. Yum yum eat ’em up. On the Rap side, Field Mob might empathize with you, but Young Jeezy and Ludacris are going to look at you and your woman the way an alpha cougar would watch an old goat limp to a watering hole. You don’t have to major in sociology to see how this kind of dog-eat-dog attitude towards club-going lends itself to more after-hours shootings than your wildest Three 6 Mafia record.
It was into a cold climate like such that Rihanna popped open The-Dream’s “Umbrella”, a song he wrote for her that became an instant cultural touchstone. You may have heard it. With houses foreclosing coast-to-coast and hard times boomeranging back after eight years of feckless federal governance, Rihanna’s record celebrated the type of friendship America’s going to need a lot more of — the type where life’s winners and losers “shine together.” Love/Hate, the Umbrella-man’s debut is just as dark as “Umbrella”, if not darker, and it’s moral compass points in the same direction. Over gloomy, spacious snap beats, he engages in the same brand of improvident hedonism as everybody else these days — snatching woman from their long-term relationships, cheating indiscriminately, brandishing dollars and the things they buy — but his nagging conscience and his ear for tragedy steal centerstage.
Take “She Needs My Love”, for instance. Like most every song on Love Hate, it’s about guys and girls trying to take each other’s bfs and gfs, and in this case, it’s some other dude trying to eat off The-Dream’s plate. (The nerve.) The-Dream goes ape-poop, of course, explaining in an apoplectic falsetto how, if this girl isn’t able to get his love, she will die. “Call 9-1-1,” he wails over a raging, furious sea of synthesizers. This would of course be another high-water mark in boastful R&B arrogance, except that the beat is too serious, the hook too similar to a cry for help. More than a selfish, possessive rant, “She Needs My Love” is a song about an emergency, which means it’s applicable to all kinds of real-life crises that have nothing to do with guys and girls, at least not the guys and girls in the song. Home foreclosures and after-hours shootings could both apply. In this way, the track recalls Wyclef Jean and Mary J. Blidge’s “9-1-1”, an ostensible love song that also perfectly captured the eery, desperate calm that hovers above a murder scene.
“She Needs My Love” is a good example of how The-Dream’s imagination rarely wanders too far from his tragic intuition, and almost never gets bogged down in the trappings of his own success. A few months back, the New York Times‘ Kaleefa Sanneh wrote about how the shrinking revenues from record sales are bound to eventually dampen the celebratory mood of Rap and R&B, and “Love Hate” may mark the first glum record in a genre bound for gloominess. However much money The-Dream made off his record advance, it wasn’t enough to buy happiness, or even temporarily distract him from the plight of lames. Even the bubbly hook of his single “Shawty is a Ten” has a meloncholy pace, as chords rise incrementally, then collapse in resign.
On “Nikki” he nabs himself a sexually cooperative dime piece of the same name, but is still so fixated on the acrimonious conclusion to his last romance that his words bristle with ire and regret. His Tracy Chapman nod, “Fast Cars”, is as unspecified an escape route as hers — more of a running-from-everything than a running-to-something matter. And on “Living a Lie”, he and Rihanna pry tears from each other’s eyes, ready to scrap their hollow, unsatisfying lives in the name of love. Two years ago, A&R agents would have looked at The-Dream as a guy who had it all: fetching melodies, beat sense, style, and allure. But somewhere in the runaway life cycle of capitalism, empathy becomes the great need of the hour, and with that in mind, The-Dream has something few hitmakers can claim: a wide-angle lens.