ARTICLE MARCUS HOLMLUND
PHOTOGRAPHY JEFF HENRIKSON
THE-DREAM'S NEW ALBUM, IV PLAY, DROPPED EARLIER THIS WEEK, AFTER A LEAK THAT RESULTED IN A MUCH-SHARED STREAM—THE HIGHLY ANTICIPATED WORK OF THE CULT-COLLABORATOR AND R&B REVIVALIST WAS RECEIVED GRACIOUSLY, AGAIN AND AGAIN. THAT'S BECAUSE THE MAN RESPONSIBLE FOR SOME OF THE MOST SUCCESSFUL SONGS OF THE PAST FEW YEARS TOOK HIS TIME TO STEP OUT ON HIS OWN, AND THE WAIT PAID OFF. WE ASKED HIM WHAT IT'S LIKE TO HAVE WRITTEN THIS MANY HITS, AND TO COME OUT WITH A WHOLE ALBUM FULL OF THEM
Terius “The-Dream” Nash coexists in two worlds: he’s a songwriter for the major leagues, writing a bulk of the last five years’ biggest hits, and an underground cult star with his own solo career as an R&B artist. He makes his heavy-hitting clientele into his own cast of characters, ingeniously piloting his sound into the mainstream consciousness through the likes of Rihanna and Beyoncé, among others (he helmed both “Umbrella” and “Single Ladies”). He holds in his hands the ability to change both R&B and pop in merely updating the sounds he loved growing up: painting the future with a Tumblr-like brushstroke, equally appreciative of yesterday and tomorrow.
His metronomic sound of pendulous repetition has become a calling card and hearkens back to the Jazz Age’s scat singing and Motown’s heyday of doo-wop and piano clinking snap-a-longs. He takes the futile topics of today’s hip-hop era and uses them to his advantage: crafting clichés into purposeful rhythmic markers in his songs. No one makes today’s vernacular sound so musical. Like a fashion designer and their muse(s), he’s attuned to the season, but also has his signatures. For instance, he’s finessed Mariah Carey into a conversationally self-aware, narrative mastermind by handing over his own aesthetic (see Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel). And it works: he’s altered hip-hop hooks into Liberace-level extravagance; all the while employing his hiccupping melodies to propel his own genre [R&B] back to relevance. His solo albums listen like operas, brimming with backstory and inner meaning, with anthemic echoes of Prince and R. Kelly. His influence (and influences) can be heard a mile away.
We met with The-Dream (whose latest LP, IV Play, was released yesterday) for lunch to analyze the gamut of his resonance, talk hits, and what’s to come for the self-proclaimed Radio Killa.
How does one go about getting a Dream track?
TD Honestly, the best way is to show up with about fifty thousand dollars in cash… Boom… That’s the easy route. Wherever I am, you show up with fifty, you probably got a song. It’s going down.
Of all the artists you’ve worked with, who would you say has done you most justice?
TD As far as my whole sound, my tone and melodicness, I’d probably have to say Rihanna.
Is that because of “Umbrella”?
TD No. It’s more because our tones are so similar—from a sonic standpoint.
Since “Umbrella,” your sound’s been recognized by the presence of ‘ella’s’ and ‘ey’s’—the melodic mark of Radio Killa… where did that whole thing come from?
TD ‘Ella’ was just literally me playing on the word ‘umbrella’ at the time. It was a way to bridge the gaps in the song, connect the measures. When “Umbrella” hit so hard and had such an impact, it kind of just became my calling card. Like my own little marketing campaign for myself that I’d put into songs to bring them all together. They never previously existed before “Umbrella.” It was so hooky that I’d use it in other songs of mine and that’s how it became a signature. Originally, it was just tying the beats and the words together, and it worked. I actually don’t do it as much anymore, though… I’ve come to let the songs have to be what they are.
So, in other words, it was not a concerted effort to bring doo-wop into this century?
TD I actually haven’t ever thought of it that way. That’s interesting. I like that. And I can see how you’d say that, but, honestly it just started as a good way to connect things both within my records and record to record. I try not to overanalyze and just do what feels good and it just felt good and grew from there.
Is there anyone you haven’t worked with that you’d die to?
TD Chris [Martin] from Coldplay. We’d kill it.
The first time I heard LoveHate I said to myself this man could make his own opera. I mean, “Nikki” could be its own musical…
TD Well, “Nikki” is its own story, movie, musical and everything… I’m finna pull her out—It’s about time for her to come out.
TD You’ve been hinting at a “Nikki” project for a while now.
TD I think people just noticed the truth about “Nikki” in their own lives. Even if you weren’t involved with her, you knew that type of a girl. “Nikki” is so real that in a sense she took on this thing of her own. Everybody walks up to me and is like, “who is she? Who is she?” Evidently, I know she’s a cult figure now… I’m not finna give this girl up that easily so you can hit up her Instagram page and shit.
So… “Nikki” is a real person and not just a metaphor?
Moving on… is there a track you wrote that you were expecting to be a hit but fizzled?
TD I probably expected “Moving Mountains,” [which] I did for Usher to be bigger than it was. It’s a great song. Lyrically, I really dove head first into those words. It was all about how love works and the ups and downs of it and using the metaphor of mountains. The track was great. It was kind of weird when it didn’t live up to expectations. It didn’t live up to its own potential. Its probably one of the greatest records I’ve ever written that didn’t get its shine. I can say now that just because you have a number one [song] on Billboard doesn’t mean you’re a hit. You can have a hit culturally that you’re not even thinking about and not have a number one single. I equate it to having someone be the best dressed at a party. There’s no hit chart for how good you looked at a party, but, if people be talking about it—just because you can’t quantify it doesn’t mean it’s not a hit from a cultural standpoint.
Is there a track you wrote that became a hit unexpectedly?
TD [Rihanna’s] “Birthday Cake.” It was hot to me, but, it was never recorded as a full song... at least to begin with. I definitely felt it’d be an anthem-y thing for the girls who’d hear it at the club and go wild for it, but, never thought people’d be asking where the full version was… and it became that.
Do you know when you’re making a hit?
TD … I guess, there’s a sense that there’s something I’m doing, and I’ve done it so long that I don’t even realize I’m doing it. It would probably take someone like you, outside of me, to tell me what makes my songs hits. I wouldn’t even know it. I definitely don’t have a regimen—I’ve written songs on buses, airplanes, Vegas—I do, though, like to put myself in some sort of pressure. I thrive when it’s the end and my back is up against the wall.
You write so well for women. I mean, all you have to do is refer to your roster and you’ll see its more women than men… why do you think you capture the female scope so well?
TD In the end, I guess, it’s kind of like the unexplained truth for me… I think my relationship with my mom has a lot to do with it. When you’re dealing with that sort of thing, your sensitivity goes up. I also think my imagination of people feeds into it—I just like being around different people. I like watching them and watching their psyche. It’s part of the way as a writer I can put myself into their eyes.
What would you say is wrong with R&B today?
TD When R&B started to compete with pop numbers, that’s when shit started to go awry. You can’t compete with pop or hip-hop numbers when you’re trying to make a great R&B album. You also should be able to make a great R&B album without any features. Once you put a feature on an R&B track it becomes either a pop or hip-hop record. R&B should be stripped… for instance, with “Rockin’ That Shit,” they put on all these rappers and it became another thing. I didn’t want anybody on that record. I wanted an R&B record. Once shit starts to compete with pop and hip-hop numbers, it’s like people don’t realize that you should be doing 50-60k sales… that’s an R&B record. R&B is lovemaking! It should be as slow-moving and gradual as life is. The song may be fast, but it isn’t ‘fast and right now’ like pop is. It’s not about this week. The importance of first-week sales really did a number on R&B today.
Of your entire catalogue, do you have a magnum opus in your opinion?
TD I haven’t made it yet. I think this “Nikki” album is going to be interesting and I’m kind of prematurely calling the fifth installment of the Love series, Phantom. I also want to do a 12” record called Sade’s Son… like six straight songs of “Fancy(s).”
I discovered last night at your listening party that IV Play features no tracks produced by your formerly frequent collaborator, Tricky Stewart. How come?
TD Trick, where you at? [Laughs] Tricky’s at Epic [Records] now. It was more a political thing than any… that’s still my homie. He’s just over there with my good friend, L.A. Reid, for a minute… in a good way, though. But don’t worry—we’ve got a whole month blocked off in August to work together.
Is that “Nikki” season?
TD [Laughs] Probably…
Where did your name, “The-Dream,” come from?
TD I remember my uncle actually saying to me, “you have to be the dream of the family.” It was like, go and do something, go on out there. He wasn’t in any position to say that to anyone at the time because he was on drugs, but, he’s one of my uncles and I’m super influenced by him, so, it stuck with me.
Would you say you’re a perfectionist?
TD Oh, of course.
Is it too much?
TD At times. Yeah.
Do you have any vices?
TD Patrón. Tequila is a vice… straight. I take it straight now. I don’t have any other vices, though—I mean, I guess, women, but they’re not as much a vice as many people’d think. My idea of a woman is probably bigger than the idea that they’d have themselves. You could never think you’re as pretty as I have you my mind. You have no idea what shoe to wear like I do. You have no idea what dress to put on… I do.
Does fame affect you at all?
TD No. I still go to Home Depot… when I hear the word ‘fame,’ I look around for other people. I was out last night with 2 Chainz—and maybe this is through a songwriter’s point of view—but there were fans trying to get at us and I was trying to help them get to 2 Chainz… I let them on by, like, I know we’re all human beings and I treat people like people. I never think they’re here for me—I always think they’re vying for the attention of the star that’s there. I never think it’s me. It’s not that it shocks me that people want to take pictures with me, talk to me, or whatever. It’s more that I’m shocked I don’t think of things on that level for me, on that level of fame. I literally would avoid the whole ‘fame’ thing if I could. I just wish fame for me could come the way that Quincy Jones did… you know, compete on a musical level of how things work, but, that’s just not gonna happen nowadays. Things are so different. The only thing I can do is protect my music by not being so fame-driven. Fame waters shit down. When the fame becomes bigger than your music is, then you’re no longer a musician. For me: having good music is the only catalyst against the machine that is fame. That’s why I’m not a pop artist.
Are there any pop artists that people have compared you to that really hit the nail on the head musically?
TD Phil Collins. Tricky [Stewart] used to say it to me all the time.
Are you a fan of his?
TD Of course! Who isn’t a fan of Phil Collins? I love his tone, his melodies—it’s incredible. Phil’s just the 80s, man.
Your work is driven a lot by the 80s sound—from “Fast Car” to “Yamaha”…
TD I’m an 80s baby. So, that’s the root for me… That’s where everything’s from for me, man.
And the LINN LM-1 machine drums?
TD I gotta give the LINN drums that Prince uses in his songs to Carlos “Los” McKinney—he’s incredible. He’s probably the best musician that there is. He doesn’t get the credit he’s deserved. He’s for real. I’ve been blessed to have him and Tricky around. Nowadays, though, I just dial into whatever I need to take a song into the direction I want it to…
Do you hear your influence today?
TD Of course. But I wouldn’t say anyone’s copying me or whatever. That’s just stupid. I do, though, see that people are learning the way that I viewed the things I heard growing up… I’m just re-introducing it back to them in my own way. And that’s really what my music is… it’s updating R&B and its standards.
What’s the future have in store for R&B?
TD Wow. The future, I think, is all about being live… like a ‘juke joint’ type of thing. There has to be a place that it can be displayed. It won’t be about competing with Hip-Hop or Pop. That’s just my dream.