The-Dream doesn’t need to be reminded that it’s been a while since you’ve heard him on the radio, he knows. He’s been preoccupied with new publishing deals, franchises and collaborations on Grammy-nominated projects. Besides, after more than a decade in the industry, the singer/songwriter doesn’t have a thing to prove.
At the time of his 2007 debut Lovehate, R&B was in an unclear space — the argument was that the genre was dead or at the very least, on life support. Singers sounded like rappers, and conversely, even the toughest MCs wanted to sound like singers. And they tried. When The-Dream debuted on Def Jam, dropping his first LP, it was unlike any R&B album that preceded it. Full of A-Town bravado, but still maintaining the theme of what it feels like to love and be loved, the album was R&B’s much-needed IV drip.
On Dec. 21, The-Dream is slated to release Sextape Vol. 1, 2 and 3 — his first album since 2013’s IV Play. Sextape is a three-disc effort, 38 tracks (with no features), all dedicated to his loyal fanbase and those who never gave up on the idea of a modern-day love song you could rock your hips to.
Although he’s had a full schedule, dipping and dabbling in various circles, working with everyone from Celine Dion to Nipsey Hussle, Dream always has just enough time to remind the world that he’s also good on his own. His pen is still influential, his input is well-coveted and his ambitions are otherworldly.
Billboard caught up with The-Dream about Sextape and more. Check out the Q&A below.
Do you remember where R&B was when you started as an artist? These days, the genre is experiencing a resurgence of sorts. How much of this would you say you had a hand in?
The-Dream: When I dropped, there was a complete void of R&B music and of those people that wanted to sing it. I was trying to deliver it in a way where it wasn’t lame. And it wasn’t this sappy sort of place that certain people were coming from at that time. I don’t think I get enough credit for that part, but that’s the part that was changed and gave R&B a certain new life. It just took awhile, about five or six years, for it to catch up and for people to catch on but it’s how we got to this particular point today.
I grew up on Jodeci and R. Kelly. So for me, there was still a certain coolness to R&B at that particular time. Before them, there was Bobby Brown and so on, but there was an era there from 2003 to 2006 where R&B was just considered this super sappy, “let’s make love, we’re never fucking.” I just said, “Hey, I’m going to do an album.” I decided to be an artist to fill that huge void where nobody knew what to say at the time.
After five years, you’re not only dropping an album, but a triple-volume album. How long have you been holding on to these 38 records?
Everyone that knows me knows I don’t save records. I try and build in that moment and be inspired by the moment, but there will be records that I’m sure…the same way me and [Beyonce] have done records that you haven’t heard yet. If we did a record in 2011, and we just weren’t ready to put it out or we felt like the temperature wasn’t right, we’d just shelve it — which doesn’t mean it’s not good, it just may not be ready for the moment, so we go on to the next thing, which is what I’ve done. Everybody asks us about the Crown Jewel album, that album exists. They ask about Love Affair, that album exists. But the temperature isn’t right. When it is, I’ll know. That’s also a part of what makes me, me.
So for Sex Tapes, I didn’t save anything, this is all new shit. I didn’t cut any corners of edginess. I just stuck to what my root was, because that’s what happens. You can be an architect of a certain thing and what’s new is always “better” than what’s old. I can’t compete with what’s new, people expect certain things from me, whether they wanna admit it or not, but nobody can ever say I’ve made a shitty record or ever made an album with fillers. That’s not ever anything that I want to do, that’s me letting my core down and the core of R&B down. I just got bored for awhile and I wanted to dive more into things with people like Nas and Jay-Z and create a culture for the Dream that wasn’t like, ‘Oh, the king of R&B!’ I want to be the king of music. Period.
Being able to write for Celine Dion and then go and write and produce “Holy Grail” for Jay-Z, that was the point of doing it. Not that I can’t do R&B records. “Eh. You haven’t put out a record in five years…” It’s like, I know. But I was just kinda planning my decade out and now it’s like, “Oh, cool. You need R&B shit that says a certain thing? I’m gonna try and drop 100 tracks within a calendar year.” Just to get it back to a certain space.
Do you think about your process in writing songs? Do you pull from your own stories or from others’?
Spiritually, I just have an innate feeling about things and individuals in life and I’m touched in that way that I can’t explain. I didn’t grab it out the air, but it’s something inside of me that I’m blessed to have. I can be around those guys and understand them and know what to say to the world, regardless of whether it’s a No. 1 or a No. 10. I know that “Holy Grail” needs to say a certain thing from Jay-Z’s imprint. It has to say what he stands for. It’s almost scientific in a way. I wanna work with Celine again but I wanna do the whole album. That’s a conversation that just happened.
I want to be in lengthy talks with people who do great things, not people who’re just doing it to do it. Like they woke up one day and said, “Hey man. I sing.” I want to be aligned with the greats, but the thing that does happen in the midst of that, when you’re writing at that level is that you get overshadowed by giants. I get that question a lot, “Why doesn’t everybody know?” Well, if you write/contribute to eight records on a Beyonce album, like, it’s Beyonce. The song that just came out on the Louis Vuitton ad with Emma Stone, “XO,” I wrote that at 8:00 a.m. after a Pusha T session in Miami and we ended up using it on B’s album. Nobody knows that. It’s like, “Oh, yeah, that’s Beyonce, we know her…and the ad with Emma Stone.” And after that: “Oh, yeah, this guy Dream birthed the idea of the song…” And I’ve been able to accept that piece. It’s about me knowing who these individuals are and being able to become and express them in a certain type of way.
We always hear the worst stories about artists selling their publishing, but earlier this year, you went and sold something like 75% of your back catalogue. Can you explain your reasoning?
It’s about timing, assets and whether or not you’ve expunged everything from that particular property that you own. Do you wanna wait 15 years to get money out of that? Or do you wanna get it now and reinvest? You can’t look at it and say, “Oh, because I don’t have that piece of that anymore means I didn’t do it.” No. That thing is still gonna read “Written by Terius Nash.” That doesn’t matter. It depends on whether or not you’re at your prime and you know what you’re doing next.
For me, it’s like, I made this amount of money from 30 to 40 and what I wanna do is quadruple up and make “this” amount from 40 to 50. And at that point, I’ll have other things that I’m doing anyway. It’s just about timing. With publishing deals, everybody doesn’t have the idea and understanding of what property means. Some kids just don’t know. Giving a company 50% of something they didn’t even help in doing, just for some upfront money, and they’re not thinking of the fact that they’re hot right now. They don’t need any more cash on them. They could do an admin deal and keep it moving. You’ll get half of the money you would’ve gotten anyway, just doing an admin deal, but at least you own all of it, so you can sell it when you feel like it, versus being handcuffed to something for no apparent reason.
My stars just aligned in a certain way to where now I’m not in any deals. So it’s like, everything I sold, they only have it up until a certain year. They have 75% of something that isn’t even all of whatever it is, number one. And number two, I have everything moving forward and it’s still all mine. I didn’t have to leave it to go and do something else. My taxes are paid. I’m not in nothing. Life is a gentle life, man. You can’t just keep stacking up things and not go and live. You can die and leave all that money and your kids spend it.
You have a few fast food franchises now as well. How did those come about?
My accountant is the one who thought of that. We’ve had certain situations where I wanted to invest in things that tripled and quadrupled in value and he had to go put his head in the sand and there are other things that worked out. This is just one of those. Me owning these Burger Kings and now Popeyes and it’s all worked out. Sometimes, I’ll have ideas and I’ve talked to them about the idea of adding waffles to the menu, maybe six months ago? They sat on their hands and now, of course KFC did it. I had to call them and say, “See? I told you.”
Can you speak a bit about Sextape?
I was just sitting on a beach minding my business, trying to figure out filmmaking, committing to things on the other side and y’all are dragging me back to the dark side. This album is gonna bring the smoke that everybody wants, if you want it, you gonna get it for a whole 12 months. It’s gonna be a nice continuation of what I started 10 years ago. And that’s just because I felt like it. That’s how I started Lovehate. Because I felt like it, not because I had to or needed to. Having records on the charts every time, it was good.
But Sextape is three volumes, 38 records which I’m calling the “38 Special” so anybody who wants it can come get it. And there are no features or fillers. I’m really happy about it and proud of it. But it’s like, people expect it to do well, then everyone’s like, ‘Well, of course!’ It’s like, I get the high bar to contend with, and everyone else gets the low bar. Then everybody will be real quiet and try not to mention it, but it’s all good.
Do you feel like you’re being judged unfairly?
The level of judgment is definitely fair. While I’m blessed, I can’t bullshit myself, I’m just better than most people. So my bar’s really high. It’s high for myself. The fact that 18-year-olds are at my shows who had to have been like eight years old when I first came out, they’re there because they went back [did their research] — it’s all a friendly competition. But the people I’m competing with? It’s not even for a title. It’s just to be a part of the anatomy of music in all aspects. Not just one piece. It’s about being all of it, all the time, no matter which room it is. [Not everyone can] leave that Beyonce room and hit the Kanye room, and go into a Pusha [T] room and go to a classical room or go to Abbey Road. It’s just not the same.
What are your thoughts on the “King of R&B” discussion that’s been swirling around the internet all week?
Jacquees talking his shit, man! You gotta give that man credit. It kinda reminded me of how I was in a certain space. I didn’t say that then, because I just have so much respect for R. Kelly and what he’s done. Even, just Jodeci, period! Bobby Brown, Aaron Hall, we could go on forever. I’m not sure at this point that I would wanna be on that list right now anyway.
I just think whoever aligns themselves with that title, it should be suited to their best gifts. Like, they’re all the Kings of R&B in their own type of way. These guys are really great at the things that they do. My idea wasn’t even to try and become the King of R&B, but if we’re talking about music and music making and the sensibilities? Like, when R. Kelly came out, we knew he was the king, because people started making music that sounded like R. Kelly’s.
So if you say that, cool, when Lovehate came out, people started making records that sounded like Lovehate. That’s the end of the conversation, because no one is going to the studio to intentionally sound like anyone and that’s an honest opinion. I still don’t think I would wanna be a King on that list because I wanna be more multifaceted than that. I don’t want to give up my liberty in the hip hop culture of writing this crazy lyrical onslaught at the end of Rick Ross’ “Money Dance.” I don’t wanna give that up just to become the King of R&B. You can call me “The Wittiest” or “The Melodic King” or “God of Music,” let me get that title. I’ll take that.