erius Youngdell Nash. Your face might carry a blank expression now, but if I asked you the common thread between Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” Gym Class Heroes, Justin Bieber, and Jennifer Lopez (to name a few), there is only one answer: Nash.
Nash, aka The-Dream, has written, co-written, or produced for all of these artists. Alongside his cohort Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, he has done as much to shape what radio and urban pop music sounds like in the last five years as Timbaland and The Neptunes were able to do in the previous five.
With the recent release of his third solo album Love King (Radio Killa/Def Jam), The-Dream has completed a trilogy that asks what conquers all. His previous albums in this loose triptych, 2007’s Love Hate and 2009’s Love Vs. Money, were ostensibly internal battles. Set to the unassuming sounds of modern R&B slow jams at which he excels in creating, The-Dream drew conflict from a love of egregious excess: If it wasn’t leagues of ladies languishing at his crib, it was wondering where to put the extra bottles of bubbly.
What made this intriguing was its lack of personality. Though The-Dream could write chart-topping singles for others, his own solo career flew under the radar (Billboard top 30, sure, but with a limited ripple effect) because it often felt like parody.
The girls, the clothes, the cars, the clubs, it all came in an indistinguishable package from a man who took this music to its logical ends. As a result, he was a victim of his own success. The self-proclaimed Radio Killa spawned a market with no room for him.
The pop landscape hasn’t altered much since “Shawty is a 10” dropped in 2007, but Love King feels like a capstone to what The-Dream has been building for the better part of a decade. Maybe it’s maturity (this is his third album); maybe it’s that he threatened to quit the business in the run-up to the album’s release (before announcing that a new album, Love Affair, was on its way in 2011); maybe it’s that his timing is better in releasing “Love King” in summer — Love Hate came out in December, Love Vs. Money in March.
Whatever the reasons, The-Dream seems to understand. The title track opens the album by scything to the chase, rattling off where his girls are: the club, the church, the trap, Toronto(?). Then he enlists fellow Atlanta resident and high-profile rapper T.I. to guest on second single “Make Up Bag.” “F.I.L.A.” follows and stands for “fall in love again,” but it might as well be a brand name drop. The-Dream is on form here, promising to make the unnamed object of his desire fall in love with him again even though “she” is currently in a relationship. As ever, he’s at his best when he’s nastiest, and here it’s all lust and blood.
What’s less clear is what we’re supposed to make of it. If we’ve learned anything from the previous two albums, it’s that what conquers all isn’t love, it’s The-Dream himself.
More so than Drake, and in a similar (but differently exhibited) way from Kanye West, the character of The-Dream is an egomaniacal chauvinist with a negligible understanding of hyphens and human interaction, an insatiable sexual appetite, and a massive bank account. He is the ultimate id, raging on the inside but thinly veiled in a superego’s suave sonic sensibilities.
While the objectification of women is typically high, Love King at least specifies names (“Nikki, Pt. 2” is the most obvious example). “Panties to the Side” finds The-Dream lamenting how he’ll never be as marketable as the people he’s writing for. “February Love” feels dangerously sincere (but maybe that’s because he’s only asking for a month-long love).
Are these small steps of reconciliation necessary, or even wanted? Are we supposed to view The-Dream with empathy? Do we applaud him for fleeting existential moments where he shows us he can see the flimsy, transparent monolith of hubris for what it is? Or is this just for show, a more insidious way of revealing his royal ego?
Dozens of listens later, I still can’t tell. What I can tell you is that you won’t be thinking of any of these questions when listening. The-Dream’s greatest artistic triumph isn’t that he’s come to make modern radio his own, or that he’s constructed a solo suite of albums that takes advantage of that position.
His greatest triumph is making you forget his status. By rational thought nihil ad rem, Love King will make even the high-minded bob their heads and, for a moment at least, forget about implications. Is there a higher compliment in pop music?