The-Dream's 'Love Vs. Money' Proved He Was More Than a Pop Hitmaker. But Not All of It Is Easy to Listen to in 2019
The singer-songwriter-producer's second solo album is 10 years old
That’s the part that sticks to your brain and pulls up your antenna and makes you notice. I call it the dumb part. I have to put the dumb part in every song I write. I have my reasons. -- The-Dream, discussing the “ella ella aye” refrain from Rihanna’s “Umbrella” in an October 2007 Rolling Stone interview.
In early 2009, singer/songwriter/producer Terius “The-Dream” Nash was at the commercial peak of his career. Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” which he co-wrote, had hit No. 1 two years prior. Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”, which he also co-wrote and co-produced, had hit No. 1 a few months earlier. Both songs netted him Grammy nominations, with “Single Ladies” earning him song of the year and best R&B song trophies at the 2010 ceremony. In the next couple of years, Justin Bieber, Mariah Carey, Drake, Kanye West and Lionel Richie would come calling.
“Umbrella” and “Single Ladies” are by no means dumb songs, and Nash is by no means the sole party responsible for their respective successes. But having churned out both hits relatively quickly -- he reportedly wrote the first verse of “Umbrella” in one minute and the bulk of “Single Ladies” in under 20 -- he craved something to sink his teeth into. Following his chart dominance, Nash and his producing partner, Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, spent late 2008 and early 2009 focusing on two passion projects: their recent signees, the girl group Electrik Red, as well as The-Dream’s sophomore album, Love Vs. Money, which turned 10 years old this week. The latter, while a totally different body of work from the iconic singles he worked on, is as impressive a piece of his catalog as anything else he's done -- though later headlines in The-Dream's personal life make parts of it an uncomfortable listen in 2019.
The-Dream’s 2007 debut, Love Hate, contains some truly great R&B music, dabbling in Prince homages (“Fast Car”), psychedelic slow jams (“Falsetto”) and punchy pop (the Rihanna-assisted “Livin’ A Lie”) while Top 20 singles “Shawty Is Da Shit” and “I Luv Your Girl” fit comfortable into the sounds of mid-2000s radio rap. But it also felt like a bit of a grab bag at times, so he aimed for something more singular on his follow-up. “I noticed that people can steal certain stuff,” he said in a recent interview, looking back on on what he described as a move away from a “basic Dream” sound for Love Vs. Money. “But there’s certain shit they can’t steal from me.” Love Vs. Money feels like the moment he realized that his unique voice, while clear and capable, was never going to carry massive singles on its own, like Usher’s or Chris Brown’s. Instead, he followed the path paved by ‘70s auteurs like Isaac Hayes or Randy Newman: allow others to make hits out of your catchiest songs while devoting most of your attention to ambitious solo albums.
In sound, scope and narrative arc, Love Vs. Money is a more carefully considered whole than Love Hate, which he wrote and recorded in eight days flat. The-Dream, Tricky and their cohort Carlos “Los Da Mystro” McKinney merge Atlanta hip-hop -- primarily snap music and proto-trap -- with electronic music via lush synth pads (check the pillowy chords that open “Right Side of My Brain”) and flourishes of baroque music provided by acoustic instruments (check the Spanish-style guitar licks and timpani hits that accent the last 90 seconds of that same song). “Trick and I go all over the place,” he said in a 2012 interview about the creative process. “Putting a bell here, a snap here, a whistle here, keeping it in the same key or taking the key up, turning the end of one song into another song. We’re basically in there just musically jerking off. Like, Ahhh! Yeahhh! Come onnn! Do ittt!”
While it’s not explicitly a concept album, Love Vs. Money tracks the rise, fall and denouement of a relationship defined by a struggle between the record’s two titular elements. Plenty of its songs still have Nash’s signature “dumb parts” (read: sticky, wordless refrains) -- one of them, from the song “Fancy,” would even form the basis of a future Fabolous and Drake track. But on Love Vs. Money, The-Dream doesn't just fine-tune his masterful knowledge of verse-chorus songcraft, he uses it as a jumping off point for a full-length that's full of creative risks and turns.
The first half of Love Vs. Money plays out like an EP of straightforward, steamy R&B, one where the carnal and the romantic are so intertwined that a song about ruining a woman’s freshly-styled hairdo via vigorous sex (“Sweat It Out”) builds to a harmonized refrain -- “I know you like the love we make” -- that’s unquestionably gorgeous. Soon, however, a plot emerges from a chance encounter in the club (“Rockin’ That Shit”) that evolves into a more serious relationship (“Take U Home 2 My Mama”).
That’s where everything falls apart, at least for the couple. The next four songs, from the brutal, two-part title track to the open-veined “Right Side of My Brain,” form a vivid breakup suite. Its centerpiece, the nearly seven-minute-long, practically bass-free “Fancy,” is so indulgent that when an accordion comes in after the lyric, “In Paris seducing me,” -- where “Paris” is pretentiously pronounced pair-REE -- you can almost glimpse a stereotypical French busker: mustache, beret, horizontal-striped shirt. The-Dream knows not every producer could pull a move like that off. “Records like ‘Fancy,’ they can’t steal,” he said in that same interview about escaping the “basic Dream” sound. “Certain artists have taken the emotions of it to create themselves, but they can’t do that record.”
The-Dream eventually sings about finding a rebound on the album’s final two tracks, but it doesn’t exactly feel like a happy ending a decade later. That last song on Love Vs. Money is called “Kelly’s 12 Play.” It’s about having sex to the 1993 album 12 Play by R. Kelly, one of The-Dream’s main influences. Both are sex-and-passion-obsessed R&B songwriters, and unfortunately, that’s not where the similarities end: Both men have also been accused of abuse. While the allegations against The-Dream are nowhere near as far-ranging and decade-spanning as the ones against Kelly are (which Kelly has repeatedly denied), The-Dream has been involved with two alleged incidents of domestic violence involving ex-girlfriend Lydia Nam. In 2013, he his was arrested following a domestic dispute, but Nam did not press charges. The following year, The-Dream surrendered himself to the NYPD after Nam accused him of beating and strangling her during a separate incident in 2013 while she was pregnant with their child, and she later released graphic pictures of what she said were the bruises. The-Dream denied all the charges (which included strangulation and assault felony charges as well as a child endangerment misdemeanor) and was eventually cleared of them. The prosecutor for his case stated, “We have determined that we cannot prove this case beyond a reasonable doubt.”
All that happened before the end of 2015, some two-plus years before the #MeToo movement as we know it took shape, and The-Dream has so far emerged unscathed. His albums still get positive reviews. Solange recruited him for two tracks on her just-released When I Get Home LP. There are no campaigns to get radio stations to stop playing songs written by him. Other actors and musicians who have been called out for abuse or harassment since 2017 have faced far more pronounced consequences, even if they were never charged with any crimes.
At the very least, these brushes with the law are the kind that make you pay attention. And he did himself no favors with the few responses he offered to his domestic abuse charges. When the case was still pending, TMZ asked him if the allegations were false, and he flashed a smile and responded, "Of course they are, I'm such a lovely person." Even worse are lyrics to last year’s “Super Soaker,” which attempts to spin the whole situation into a punchline: “The only time I hit a girl is from the back/ And the only time I slap a bitch is on the ass.”
Love Vs. Money doesn’t have many moments like that. For an album about the ways money can influence relationships, it has less veiled misogyny than the average song about gold digger clichés, though some lyrics certainly read as more disturbing in hindsight: “Quit acting like I’m the only one to blame, honey/ Didn’t hear you scream ‘no’ when you was trickin’ off my money,” he sings on “Love Vs. Money, Pt. 2.” Love Vs. Money isn’t otherwise an album where hints about possible toxic behavior seem to lurk around every corner, something Rolling Stone’s Jonathan Bernstein experienced when he looked back at Ryan Adams’ catalog following a New York Times exposé about the musician. But that doesn’t mean you can or necessarily should look back on the album without considering the accusations he faced.
The two extremes are obvious here: You can never listen to his work again out of support for his alleged victim, or you can continue on as a steadfast fan because he was never found guilty of anything. But there’s a middle ground that exists, too. At the very least, you can hold The-Dream’s music in high esteem and hold onto the knowledge of his abuse scandal -- its gravity and context within his career -- without having to trade one for the other; you can recognize that the guy who had a hand in some of the biggest women’s empowerment anthems of the 21st century -- Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies” and “Run the World (Girls)” -- has also been accused and cleared of harrowing behavior. That may offer the fullest, albeit complicated, portrait of The-Dream’s career and legacy. To truly evaluate an artist’s career, you can’t just look at the easy, infectious, “dumb parts": The-Dream’s much more than his numerous “ellas” and “ayes,” for better or for worse.