Art vs. Pop: Who is The-Dream and What Has He Done for Music?

He’s written tracks for Madonna, Mariah, and Mary J. He’s also written for Janet (Jackson), Jamie (Foxx), and Jesse (McCartney). With longtime friend and collaborator C. “Tricky” Stewart, he produced Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)”—two songs famously likable by folks who don’t even like urban music. Given this already impressive resume, it sounds trite to call The-Dream the next big thing or the savior of whatever; let’s face it, Terius Nash had us all at “Umbrella,” and, instead of blowing smoke up the listening public’s fundament about the what-what, it’s time to examine just why this guy is so good. The 21st century Radio Killa follows the classical formula for artistic success: he balances ambitious innovation with sophisticated restraint. His newest CD, Love vs. Money, demonstrates the elegance of high art through simple yet precise lyrics, and dazzling yet functional production techniques and musical composition.

The album bears the names of the principal lyrical theme clichés attached to the R&B and Rap genres, respectively. The-Dream does absolutely nothing to transcend the obvious definitions of either love or money: the first sound heard on the record is a cash register immediately followed by the first line of “Rockin’ that Sh**”: “Girl, I’m in love with you baby / And I want you to know that I’m hooked on your body / And I’m tryin’ to be yours.” Clearly, rocket science is not the topic du jour. Throughout the record, love is portrayed as sexy and flirtatious, and money as tantamount to self-worth. While this is well-traveled territory in the annals of R&B and Rap history, and while it may alienate certain urbane (read: pretentious) audiences, the lyrics of Love vs. Money actually nail the intrinsic nature of both thematic entities. Songs like the aforementioned opener, “Put It Down,” and “Sweat It Out” (a clever song about how love can ruin a beautician’s job well done) are actually sexy—meaning, they are seductive without sounding tacky; they are erotic without sounding pornographic. The songs about money, including the three-song mini-opus title track[s], are equally precise, as they earnestly convey either the bravado or the sagacious wisdom of the self-made man.

Even more immediately appealing is the sublime music surrounding the lyrical texts. The record’s ambition is apparent in that all songs segue—Frank Zappa would be proud. Other immediate attractions include the same Prince-esque synthesizers that once inspired all the transition music on the sitcom Saved By the Bell, incredibly deft orchestration of vocals including mouth percussion on “Right Side of My Brain” that is somehow neither cheesy nor cringe-worthy, and the best continuous usage of a phaser effect since the Thirteenth Floor Elevators’ jug player Tommy Hall (listen to “You’re Gonna Miss Me” from 1966 for a refresher). Where The-Dream shines brightest, however, is through his gift of melody. Many R&B tracks get swallowed up in a deep groove in which a forgettable tune drifts like either a dead body or pond scum; alternately, Rap tracks often flounder above those same murky waters with a graceless but rhythmic hook. The-Dream allows that wonderful harmonic vagueness so characteristic of both genres to facilitate melodies of paramount importance to the overall listening experience.

In other words, a song like “Fancy,” the album’s most impressive achievement, captivates for no less than six and a half minutes with only two repeated chords (neither of which explicitly indicate the actual key of the song). He does this by layering a collage of vocal and synth melodies in a way not unlike the romantic composer Anton Bruckner. Of course, none of this is apparent while the song plays, because the listener is too enthralled with “Buying her them Fendi shoes…flying in G4 jets…[and] swerving in Bentley whips.” These lyrics may sound boring out of context, but the song makes an eloquent and convincing defense for how money (whether or not it should) actually does buy love—someone remind me, how much is the average engagement ring?

In analyzing and criticizing records like The-Dream’s Love vs. Money, an apparent pitfall is to get wrapped up in a turgid quagmire of aesthetic theories and compositional technicalities: over-thinking, essentially. On the other hand, I wish other artists would start thinking a bit harder about their music. So many country artists like Rascal Flatts slave over the same clichés to deliver same-y ballads with same-y string arrangements. These songs aren’t necessarily bad (in the case of Rascal Flatts, many are quite nice), but they fail to excite that area of the brain that responds to stimuli more subtle—they’re not very artistic. Rock artists like Nickelback often have worse results: their music intends to sound badass and aggressive, but it comes off sounding bloated and overblown. The-Dream doesn’t just avoid these pitfalls of his peers; he’s flying over the creative jungle in a helicopter. In his words: “Now if they ask you can [he] sing like Usher, say no…When they ask you [does he] dance like Chris, tell them no…[but] when they ask about [him], you say / He put it down, put it down, put it down, put it down, put it down.”

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