By The-Dream (Def Jam Recordings), $14.99
The-Dream isn’t an underdog, but he plays one on his solo albums. It isn’t his likeliest role: A critically adored songwriter, he’s helped to pen galvanizing, era-defining hits for Justin Bieber (Baby, more than 3 million copies sold in the U.S.), Rihanna (Umbrella, north of 4 million), and Beyoncé (Single Ladies, 5 million-plus). Beyond that, his résumé is heavy on performers too huge to require surnames—Madonna, Britney, Usher, Mariah. He’s told interviewers that his earnings from co-writing Umbrella alone were $15 million: a staggering haul that starts to resemble a bargain when you consider that the song single-handedly enabled Rihanna’s transformation in 2007 from a semi-anonymous pop trifle into a bona fide arena-filling icon.
And yet The-Dream has long yearned to be a star himself, not merely the facilitator of others’ stardom. Born Terius Nash, he has a lithe tenor, delicate phrasing, and a knack for riddling pop songs with beguilingly weird sounds and rhythms. Over four solo albums, the spotlight has eluded him. His highest-charting song, Shawty Is a 10, came out six years ago and peaked at No. 17. The release of his new album, the excellent IV Play, was bumped repeatedly by his label, Def Jam—the delay dragged on so long, The-Dream saw fit to record and leak an unsanctioned stopgap album in the interim. There are moments on the new LP when his frustration burns through: “I know they ain’t gon’ play this on Top-40 radio,” he sings, defiant and resigned, on the lead single, Slow It Down, which protests dance music’s up-tempo reign. On the slow-burning title track, he repeats, “I can give a f––– about the foreplay, I want it now.” The refrain’s ostensibly about sex—and it captures The-Dream’s bracingly direct way with a lyric, which might be one reason the mainstream hasn’t fully embraced him. But its aggrieved impatience has a broader resonance. On more than one level, this Cyrano wants to get in the sack already.
The-Dream’s combination of R. Kelly-indebted ham (Equestrian), Prince-inspired freakiness (Fast Car), and avant-garde catchiness (nearly every song he’s put out) cleared a path for left-of-center R&B rookies such as Frank Ocean, Miguel, and The Weeknd. But The-Dream has yet to break fully from a vast coterie of aspiring stars who write for established acts while plotting their own ascents. Major labels once nurtured careers—each album was a brick in a larger, steadily expanding edifice—but today the industry puts as much weight on first-week album sales as Hollywood does on opening-weekend receipts. For most pop acts, “artist development” has come to mean slugging away in the farm leagues in hopes of learning enough (and scoring sufficient connections) to climb to the big time. Lady Gaga wrote for Britney early on; Ocean wrote for Bieber; when pre-fame Bruno Mars sold smashes to B.o.B. and Travie McCoy, he was savvy enough to insist that he appear on them, too. It may soon be impossible to turn on the radio without hearing the voices of, say, Bonnie McKee or Ester Dean—chief lyric and melody writers for Katy Perry and Rihanna, respectively—but until then they’re understudies, stuck backstage.
In this way, The-Dream occupies a strange limbo, his solo career indulged to a point by a label too smart to neglect it outright but too skeptical to make it a top priority. The good news for listeners is that he’s most compelling when spurned and smoldering. In a genre populated by cooing Casanova caricatures, he sings songs in which devotion slides into obsession, infidelity is viciously avenged, and sex is bluntly transactional. On the lascivious P*ssy, he succinctly describes a pregnancy less as a blessing and more as a business deal: “Million-dollar baby, plus alimony.”
It testifies to The-Dream’s deftness as a vocalist, not to mention his chubby-cheeked-teddy-bear charm, that he can be so confrontational while remaining overwhelmingly charismatic. IV Play is full of A-list guests, including Beyoncé and Jay-Z, and in this exalted company The-Dream effortlessly holds his own. For 60-odd minutes, at least, there’s no bigger star in the world.