The-Dream sticks to his strengths on ‘IV Play’

May 20, 2013

Put yourself in The-Dream’s position: You’re an awkwardly hyphenated R&B superstar artist and producer. You have no problem getting Jay-Z and Beyonce to guest-star on your new album, “IV Play,” which drops next week. (You co-wrote “Single Ladies.” She owes you.) Your messy personal life is TMZ click bait. You’ve sold . . . not millions of albums, but a lot. Things are going well.

And yet.

You can’t shake the feeling that the great artists to whom you are an heir, artists such as R. Kelly and Prince, sold more records in their day than you have in yours, and that this is wrong, somehow. It’s gotten to the point where electro-pop dance hits, the kind churned out by frequent The-Dream collaborator Rihanna, feel like the enemy. For R&B stars who specialize in slow jams, the rise of dance-pop has been a giant killer.

“The cultural impact of records is more important to me than a No. 1 record,” says The-Dream, born Terius Nash, who doesn’t have any of those. “That doesn’t happen. But I don’t do mainstream music. If I feel a song in my soul, if it’s a part of me, then I’m happy most of the time.”

“IV Play,” like most of the music The-Dream makes under his stage name, spruces up R. Kelly-like bedroom jams with a phantasmagoric array of state-of-the-art studio effects and covers subject matter so steamy we can’t even print some of the song titles, let alone the lyrics. The result is a brilliantly made collection of heavily Auto-Tuned, ephemeral soundscapes that, while no better than any of The-Dream’s other albums, is at least as good. Nash and his longtime production partner, Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, adorn these songs like Christmas trees: They’re gaudy, intricately constructed, and packed with features (Big Sean, Kelly Rowland, Gary Clark Jr.). Tell Nash that a critic once described his aesthetic as “more is more,” and he takes it as a compliment.


The-Dream. (Andrew Zaeh)

Nash’s own songs tend to be gentler and slower than the ones he and Stewart make for others. The two first teamed up more than a decade ago, and soon began midwifing a steady stream of era-defining hits: “Umbrella” for Rihanna; “Touch My Body” for Mariah Carey; “Me Against the Music” for Britney Spears; “Single Ladies (“Put a Ring on It)” for Beyonce; “Baby” for Justin Bieber.

Nash, 35, mostly focused on production work and made albums when he could get to them, beginning with “Love Hate” in 2007. By 2010, he was exhausted, tired of the need for endless self-promotion and wealthy enough from his production work to not have to bother. He announced that his then-new album, “Love King,” would probably be his last. “I’m an oddball Georgia working guy. I’m so myself all the time, but it’s critical to fit in,” says Nash, who claims the record industry’s relentless focus on image-making caused him to see artifice everywhere he looked. “That carried through to relationships. You start to realize no one is who they say they are.”

Nash married R&B starlet Christina Milian in 2009 and within months was photographed on a beach with another woman. The ensuing divorce informed what would become the raw, angry, borderline misogynistic “1977,” an album initially released for free online andthe only album he has issued under his birth name. “It’s more about relationships and the reality of it,” he says now. “There are songs on past albums [that were equally dark], but what happened was, they were blanketed by the amount of records I had in a good spirit.”

“IV Play” is The-Dream’s first official release in three years. As usual, it takes old-fashioned tropes and makes them sound ineffably modern. One single, the Fabolous-assisted “Slow It Down,” addresses The-Dream’s commercial woes. It’s part stripper anthem, part call to arms (“I know they ain’t gonna play this on Top 40 radio / . . . DJ you know you wrong / Enough with the [expletive] dance songs”). “Michael,” one of the disc’s slighter, better songs (and one of its most lewd), is an unabashed King of Pop tribute. “It’s my contribution to the Michael Jackson [lexicon], but not too much,” Nash says. “I say a lot of bad things on it.”

“High Art” has dueling vocals from The-Dream and Jay-Z, with Nash paying homage to marijuana and Jay-Z paying homage to Jay-Z. Beyonce, uncharacteristically bawdy, appears on the banger “Turnt.”

Nash swears that recording with Blue Ivy’s parents was another day at the office. Not because they’re just like everybody else, but because he’s just like them. “They kind of are the same as me in a lot of ways,” he says. “It’s hard for the public to understand. I bring them in and create a place for them to be open. I don’t boss them around, but they do expect me to tell them the truth in the studio.” Nash says this isn’t usually a problem.

“I am pretty frank of a guy. That used to be appreciated, back in the day.”

The-Dream performs at Fillmore Silver Spring on Sunday.

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