The-Dream makes pastiche that stands out as inauthentic even in a world of academic pop and R&B. In one song he’s squeaking like Michael, the next he’s getting knee-deep like Kelly, in another he synths like Prince. His gestures and tics should come with an index of references. Every song is like a karaoke performance; his singing is imitation, amateur. His lyrics are often trite to the extreme – “on planes that fly” – and when not standard loverman tropes of shack up and break up, revolve around the most banal activities: shopping, drinking and the V.I.P. section.
And yet. And yet The-Dream’s greatest-hits-of-R&B act has created a fascinating and inventive series of song-cycles. He has somehow managed to throw everything at the wall and make it stick. His concept-heavy albums have songs with themes that fall twisted on top of one another, whose structures expand and contract the possibilities of R&B.
For all his posturing and boasts, in videos he seems like a shy geek hiding under his hat, collar and sunglasses. He looks like a cartoon spy or the Invisible Man. It’s like he has to make up for his belly and jowls by working on the body of his songs instead. And some of those bodies are beautiful. Every album so far has featured love songs loosely revolving around a theme, first Love Hate, followed by Love vs Money, then Love King. Within each album there are usually one or two tight song cycles, songs that bleed sonically and lyrically into each other. Love King’s outrageous Prince pastiche ‘Yamaha’ – about the thrill of a new relationship – runs seamlessly into ‘Nikki pt. 2’, where this new romantic situation is complicated by the return of an old flame. Dream’s meta-narrative runs deep, as the Nikki of the title featured in Love Hate (the first album) and refers to his real life ex-wife. ‘Yamaha’ starts with Dream chatting a girl up with “Don’t know your name, little mama” and near the end, without warning, becomes about Nikki (“still got your name tattooed on my back”) then – as if the song doesn’t notice – continues being about the new girl until breaking into ‘Nikki pt. 2’ with “Nikki I miss you”. That song, wistful and remonstrative, slides directly into the anger of ‘Abyss’, where Nikki can “cry till you drown your face” for “it’s all because of you”.
These song cycles are Dream’s bread and butter. They seem explicitly designed to be listened to in order as part of an album and don’t work as well as youtube videos. Love vs Money’s title track packs a punch with the bitter line “wanted to take you home to my Mama” because it was said so open-heartedly in ‘Take U Home 2 My Mama’ a few songs earlier. But his masterpiece is a song that can stand alone (although it too shifts seamlessly into its successor). ‘Fancy’ is a six minute, slow building meditation on the high life, a song about “diamond rings and all those things”. Over a languid, hazy rhythm, the narrator tries to convince us and himself that he is happy with his lover and his wealth. The song is ostensibly about a girl, a “fancy” girl that Dream is spending this numbed bliss with. It starts with sweetness and excuses: “she made her way from nothing/can’t fault her for wanting something/she loves men that can afford”, but as the hollowness of their lives and their love becomes more inescapable – “She’s with me because she wanna live fancy/I’m with her because she’s beautiful” – the music starts to snap out of its reverie and when the beat finally drops the heavy 4×4 climaxes with… sparkles. The niggling sensation that everything is not right takes over and we go from the champagne laziness of ‘Fancy’ to the painful heartbreak of ‘Right Side of My Brain’.
But after all that the derivative charge still stands. It just may be that The-Dream is one of the few real world examples of the postmodern conceit that a clusterfuck of references can create something that transcends those references. And while Dream’s lyrics are often truly ridiculous (the stand out has to be in the aforementioned ‘Yamaha’ where Dream says to his girl “Police hate us/Why?/Because they never seen a girl with an ass so fat”) his delivery can make simple lines heartbreaking. ‘Mr. Yeah’ starts like a throw away with Dream boasting that “my publisher love when I do this”, but quickly turns into the humble admission of the cuckolded narrator that “you can always come back”. Just the soft, plaintive way he says “yeah” at the end of this song makes my heart melt. Pleasingly he cuts through the treacle at the last moment by adding “can we fuck now?” in the same sad voice.
The-Dreams albums are like an intricately structured trip through R&B past and present. Dream would be notable if he was only the co-writer and co-producer of two of the best big-hit songs of recent years (‘Umbrella’ and ‘Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It)’) but his willingness to experiment with song cycles could open the door to a whole new R&B. Just a new R&B that is strangely antiquarian.