The-Dream writes three kinds of song. There are his session songs, the “Single Ladies” and “Umbrella”s that give the world’s Beyonces and Rihannas their most iconic tracks. Even when they’re not hits — take Electrik Red, his protégé girl group, who had the poor timing of existing before MKS got love and Little Mix got sales — they’re built to smash. Then there’s Terius Nash’s own stuff, lush and often nutty and generally about one of two things: sex or grievances. Anyone in a Dream song is either being fucked or fucked over — sometimes both at once, as his musical persona varies from shameless lech to unapologetic user. It’s a surprisingly winning formula, allowing Nash the enviable status of making millions of royalties and thousands of cult R&B heads, the kind of people who’d read the album title IV Play and immediately run to Rap Genius to be first on the R. Kelly reference.
But status isn’t forever. It turns out being a lech/user is less sustainable in real life than on record. Nash’s divorce from singer Christina Milian — prompted in part by his cheating — was publicized in uncomfortable detail by the tabloids, then by Nash himself in even more uncomfortable detail on the deeply bitter 1977 last year. And while his hitmaking didn’t change — Nash will probably be getting “Single Ladies” royalties as long as single ladies exist — the landscape did. Basically, The-Dream watched what must seem like everyone but him got career breakthroughs by sounding either exactly like The-Dream or the exact opposite. The instant success of acts like The Weeknd meant Nash wasn’t the only high lonesome asshole in R&B anymore. Having sufficiently complained about that on 1977, Nash turned to the other problem: the convergence of EDM and R&B, largely the work of Europeans like Norway’s Stargate and France’s David Guetta; suddenly, the genre’s biggest names, Ne-Yo, Chris Brown and all their imitators, were glorified house singers.
Even the artists who did keep making straight R&B, like Usher, reserved half their albums for dance tracks aimed at the big Top 40 market; their traditional R&B singles did well on urban radio but almost never crossed over. Nash isn’t alone in his annoyance at this; the anti-EDM talk’s been given in various permutations by everyone from Bob Lefsetz to Dave Grohl to — somehow — Daft Punk. But it’s never been given quite like The-Dream’s “Slow It Down,” the manifesto of a lead single from IV Play. The track’s a typically skewed Nash metaphor: if dancing is sex, then David Guetta is a two-pump chump. Slow it down, Nash insists. He breaks singing voice to deliver this and “enough with the motherfucking dance songs” like he’s 50 rejections deep this week, so the ladies can bump and grind properly. “They ain’t gonna play this on Top 40 radio,” The-Dream gripes, and while on sound alone it’s dubious — “Slow It Down” sounds less like a slow jam than Alicia Keys, who top 40 does play — you figure he’d know.
The thing is, Top 40 isn’t all dance songs. EDM may be a multimillion, megasponsored enterprise, but as a genre it’s deceptively niche. Right now, the top five songs on the Hot 100 are Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” Macklemore’s “Can’t Hold Us,” Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky,” Justin Timberlake’s “Mirrors” and Florida Georgia Line’s “Cruise,” all of which challenge the EDM monopoly in their own ways: self-conscious Prince throwbacks, self-styled indie rap, rococo R&B, retreats into country, disco with name-brand musicians and their name-brand licks. (One wonders what Terius Nash thinks of Pharrell’s resurgence. Next album, perhaps.) A little further down the chart, among the teen-pop and megastar singles you’d expect, you find what’d seem improbable a year or two ago: an R&B crossover act, Miguel, with a bona fide hit in “#Beautiful.” (He did it by embracing Mariah Carey, summery soft rock and hashtags, but a hit’s a hit.)
And most damningly, Nash’s hits were never as far off from dance as he boasts. He may not be singing over Calvin Harris, but “Umbrella” and “Baby” sound like Stargate; “Me Against the Music” sounded like the Neptunes when the Neptunes were dance-pop rulers. “Single Ladies” got big because of its dance. Nash, circa 1997, may have tweeted about pop that “that’s not who I am right now,” but in view of his career it sounds more like sour grapes.
The rest of IV Play more or less confirms this. The first line, again, in Nash style, boasts “girl I miss you like bitches miss my music,” but it could just as easily be “I miss you like I miss my airplay.” There’s no motherfucking dance-pop here, just an all-out attempt at recapturing urban radio. Which, in a way, is also a pop move: it’s essentially the same strategy as Rihanna’s strip club-set Unapologetic. There are the Mike WiLL imitations, the lush slow jams, even a “Pony” takeoff: “Equestrian,” which lifts its chorus from Ciara. The album’s replete with namedrop guestspots, the album-credits equivalent of “Form of Flattery”’s boast “I’m embedded,” but none of them do much beyond restating their personae. Beyonce is a patrician sex symbol, Kelly Rowland the duet partner, 2 Chainz is 2 Chainz, Jay-Z is Jay-Z (albeit sounding remarkably like 2 Chainz), and Big Sean is the exact opposite of his boasts: in this case, an unsexy-ass, uncharismatic-ass, un-flow-having-ass embarrassment. As is his song, the plodding “Pussy”; the hook’s fine, but given the metaphor, the old Terius would have managed “double fisting.” It’s as if The-Dream figured out a fourth kind of song to write: session songs for anyone but himself, built not to smash but to fizzle.