One of my favorite musical moments of 2009 occurs midway through Love vs. Money, the second album from R&B hitmaker The-Dream. The setting is standard-issue: Our protagonist is a Patron-sipping prowler, making his way through a club full of women, "looking for a 10." The sonics are similarly familiar, at least on the surface — high-gloss, high-generic modern R&B.
The singer tries to play the swaggering love-'em-and-leave-'em lothario role embodied in recent years by hip-hop/R&B artists from Jay-Z to Usher, and as long as he's with his boys, he pulls it off: "I'm like damn/My niggas like damn," he sings appreciatively, taking his horndog attitude to its loopiest extreme: "Her titties like woo-oo-oo/Her booty like woo-oo-oo."
The mood is tipsy. You can almost feel the blur of light, sound, and bodies. But when the singer's finally alone with a woman, he can't maintain his cool. His buddies may only be looking for sex, but he gets interested: "Shawty look good/Shawty look fine," he sings, soaking up the moment, the music dropping down to underscore an airy, almost DeBarge-like falsetto: "She said, 'We can leave after one more dance'/I said, 'Take your time (take your time).'" In the context of the song — the genre, the culture — it's positively sweet.
He just met this girl, but already his mind is racing past immediate post-club fantasies to a vision of the long haul. "Why you ain't my girlfriend," he wonders en route to talking himself into the refrain that provides the song's title: "Take U Home 2 My Mama."
In an era of oddball pop stars, The-Dream — which is the chosen musical moniker of Atlanta-based Terius Nash — is weird for how simultaneously nondescript and pervasive he is. As a songwriter, he's responsible for the most universal pop song of the past decade — Rihanna's "Umbrella" — and the most ubiquitous hit of the past year — Beyoncé's "Single Ladies [Put a Ring On It]." And yet he'll be an opening act at the DeSoto Civic Center for Keyshia Cole, a fine modern R&B singer but not exactly Mary J.
Outside of "neo"-connected ringers like Raphael Saadiq, Jill Scott, and Erykah Badu, no one in mainstream R&B is making better albums right now than The-Dream has with his late-2007 Love/Hate and early-2009 Love vs. Money. With an assist from frequent musical partner Chris "Tricky" Stewart, The-Dream has followed the likes of Timbaland, the Neptunes, and Kanye West from the background to the forefront in a songwriter/producer-as-auteur paradigm that's made a happy folly of any distinctions between mainstream and avant-garde in the realm of black pop.
His musical formula is simple and rooted in recent soul history (with direct references to Prince, Michael Jackson, and R.Kelly) but utterly "now": watery percussion, buzzing synths, and hooks galore. The-Dream is a journeyman-level singer, but, as a producer and arranger, he makes up for his limitations, layering vocal repetitions and interjections that have become a trademark of the man who put the "ella ella ella aye" in "Umbrella." But what makes all of this aural eloquence stick is the sneaky personality: In a genre too prone to pro-forma love/sex lyrics, he's got the sense of humor and wordplay of a good rapper.
On one of his endless sexual boasts, this one from Love vs. Money's "Put It Down," The-Dream sings, "Now if they ask you can I sing like Usher, say no/But I can make you sing like Mariah, ooooooooh."
Not only doesn't he sing like Usher, he doesn't look or move like him either. Nash is a plain-looking, stubby, once-chubby music nerd. And I think that's the secret to why his obsessive interest in sex — an R&B given since the days of Marvin Gaye, at least — is softer, more expansive, and more generous than most of his contemporaries.
There are traces of the alpha-dog jerk that plagues so many modern male R&B and hip-hop artists, but these elements are subsumed by his vulnerability and humor, his tendency to get awestruck in the presence of a female partner. As The-Dream asserts on the new album's "Mr. Yeah": "All these niggas be poppin' that bullshit/But I be in it like a preacher in a pulpit."
"Take U Home 2 My Mama" moments abound across The-Dream's albums: On Love vs. Money's first single, "Rockin' That Sh*!," the prospect of casual post-club sex gets him flipped: "I wanna change your name to Mrs. Nash," he croons. Earlier, on Love/Hate's "Playin' in Her Hair," an object of affection inspires the priceless double double-entendre: "I fell like an outworked boxer in the very first roooouuund/Tried to keep my guard up, but she caught me, and I'm goin' doooowwwn." This is followed immediately by "Purple Kisses," where he playfully teases his girl about her makeup and hair and later fails — again — to play it cool: "I'm racin' down the stairs/I open the door, she's right there/And she's like, 'How you like my hair?'/I'm like, that bob looks fly, but them lips?/Oh my." Hair is a recurring fetish — like bare feet in Quentin Tarantino films — most memorably invoked by the sexual warning/promise that leads off "Sweat It Out": "Girl, call Latisha, your beautician/Cause your hair is gonna need fixin'."
These awestruck meetings and the ensuing playful, flirtatious couplings lead to deeper stuff: The devotional duet "My Love" (The-Dream and Mariah Carey trading off lyrics: "Who's willing to go half on a baby?" "Who's in love with your ass like crazy?"), the regretful "Love vs. Money," the epic ex-to-the-next "Nikki," all suggesting that The-Dream may yield even more surprises in the future.
The-Dream, with Keyshia Cole, Keri Hilson, and Bobby V
DeSoto Civic Center
Friday, June 12th, 8 p.m.