It’s the first Tuesday morning of December and Terius “The-Dream” Nash has woken up to great, but familiar news: “I just heard I got two Grammy nominations for ‘Ultralight Beam.'” The three-time award winner stands a good chance to come away with more hardware for his work on the opening track for Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo album, which also features Chance the Rapper, Kirk Franklin and Kelly Price.
2016 has quietly been a big year for Nash, who’s either lent his voice or pen to some of the year’s biggest albums — Beyonce’s Lemonade, RIhanna’s Anti, Solange’s A Seat at the Table. Each shot he’s taken has ended in a victory. “You know,” he says coolly from his Atlanta home, “Swish.”
Though his next proper album, Love Affair, is scheduled for release on March 24, 2017, this Friday (Dec. 9), Dream will deliver his Love You to Death EP. It’s a five-song collection of cuts that features a response to his buddy Beyonce’s opus (“Lemon Lean”), a song for guys who were left by women with Rihanna-like confidence (“Rih-Flex”), and of course, lyrics that somehow swirl the headaches and heartache relationships can cause with vibes fit for passionate bedroom romps.
Below, Dream talks working on his superstar friends’ projects, how getting dumped by a prom date inspired “Rih-Flex,” and why being young, Black and broke makes for a rough dating life.
Let’s recap the great year you had. It began with your visual album Genesis coming out through Tidal.
The viewing happened at Art Basel last year. The results were great. I tried not to oversell it because it’s a place I’m trying to move in to. I didn’t want to be like, “Oooh, look what I did!” I’m in love with Sundance films and visual art things that go on. What I realized is that those [creators] don’t oversell and pound their chests. I don’t want to be that loud Grammy guy, I just wanted to give my music its own identity. I love movies. They’ve always influenced the music i’ve done. That’s how I think. I think video before music.
I paint. A lot of people don’t know that. The last two that I made — I recently just gave [a painting] to [Beyonce], and I gave one to Jay [Z]. They’re not typically for sale. I love it when people come in my house and ask for my paintings off the wall, and I have to tell them that I did it. I love art. Genesis was created to be the backdrop of my music.
There’s a lot of poignant imagery in it. What did you hope the viewers would take from it?
The main character is trying to be something that he’s not. It’s this Black man and his face is white. He’s seeking things that he shouldn’t be seeking. That’s what the film was about. I didn’t want to explain it or tell anybody. I wanted viewers to see him chase down certain things through sex and what he’s wearing or cars. Men have to embrace who they are.
Did the film make enough of an impact for you?
I’ve seen visuals that have happened this year and seen how they happened and the tone of them, and I [think to myself], “Oh, cool. Somebody was looking at me. Somebody watched it and was influenced by it.”
What do you think about the trend of visual albums? It seems like more artists want to join in making companion pieces.
I’ve been saying this. I’ve wanted to do a visual album since [my 2007 debut album] Love Hate. I wanted [a movie like] Purple Rain for my record because I felt like it was that good. I felt the same way for [2009’s] Love vs. Money. It’s easier now because there’s a cheaper way to accomplish it. You’ve got 4K [camera quality] on your phone now. We didn’t have that shit. These kids out here are shooting whatever they want to shoot. It’s different just 10 years later.
And these albums should have a visual. Everything that we do is visual. It’s a visual universe. We’re not just listening. We have to see the colors, the emotion. We need to see it.
You’re a regular on Beyonce albums as a writer. This time you were on Lemonade’s “6 Inch.”
Of course. I love to be heavily involved in Bey’s albums but I understood from the jump that this wouldn’t be one I would be heavily involved in. The album before it [Beyonce] was eight songs. The one before that , I had seven. With Lemonade, it was one where she had something to say, and I maybe am just too close to the family to say most of the things that were said.
I didn’t have the concept of the album when I wrote to “6 Inch.” It was just like, “Okay, cool, let me write and do my thing.” The parts that I did were way longer. She trimmed it down to what it is. Nevertheless, it’s a great track and I definitely loved it. I can’t wait for it to get the accolades that it should receive. Also, I can’t wait for selfish reasons — so I can get back in and try to dominate [her next album].
You’re all over SBTRKT’s Save Yourself album. What was it like to work in his world?
On Genesis, there’s a record that we’d done. And other tracks from that time we worked together were kept for his project. It was a really good experience because that was a different sound, which doesn’t really matter to me. Music is music. It came out beautifully. Those are really great records.
On RIhanna’s Anti, you wrote “Woo.” Describe that experience.
It’s Rih. That’s my homie. Most of the time when I come in and listen to these albums, which is how this started, it’s me checking the temperature and texture of the record. That album took a long to time come out to the surface.
I think Kanye [West] was at the top of that at one point. I wasn’t going to step into it if Kanye was already there. He would have had to call me, since he was executive producing. So then I kind of forgot that it wasn’t with him anymore and that it wasn’t done. I got there at the tail end and got on “Woo.” When I first heard it, there was just mumbling on it. And Rihanna wanted me to come in and make sense lyrically, just come in and write the record. Travis’ part was there already. That’s what I did.
You’re on two of Kanye’s Pablo tracks. That’s another album that took a good while to come out. What do you remember about those sessions?
We met two times for that record, which is normal for those guys at the top. February was the last time. “Ultralight [Beam]” was such an easy record to write. The chords were there. I wrote the hook right on the spot. I didn’t have to go anywhere or do anything. Chance was in the other room working on his rap. I just felt like it needed something gospel in it without pretending to be something that we’re not.
We all have this feeling of gospel in us. It’s a feeling and tone that some will always get. It’s embedded in us. It’s part of our culture. I wanted to make sure I delivered that, because I had never done that before on anything, especially that wide. That was an easy thing to bring out. I just thought of my childhood, my grandfather and the deacons at church, singing hymns. It was easy to bring to the forefront and add that piece of my soul.
Solange also brought you in to sing on “F.U.B.U.” How’d you land on that album?
She came here to Atlanta to finish what she had done, and played me her stuff. And she wasn’t super sure about everything that she was doing. I definitely assured her that it was awesome as f–k, like, “You need to drop this sh-t. This sh-t is awesome. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Just put it out. Don’t think about it.”
For that track, I just put myself in Dream artist mode. “Fancy” is one of her favorite records. She loves it to death. When she asked me to be on “F.U.B.U.,” I was like, “Of course!” It didn’t take long. And I did backgrounds on the song with Wayne, “Mad.” And that was a wrap.
On “Ultralight Beam” and “F.U.B.U.,” fans hear you talking about the gospel and race, two topics you’re not known to touch on typically. Why now?
It’s high risk. Some artists won’t ever risk that for you. You can risk it and ultimately pay the price. You better be talented to make it make sense in the end. But to be an artist, you have to risk something. It just can’t be you and this persona that’s been made up in the machine. You’ve got to step up.
That risk happened two years ago when I did “Black.” I went to South Africa to do it, across from where they jailed Nelson Mandela. I made that video for way more money than it should have been. Nobody talks about it. It wasn’t celebrated. Nobody thought about it. It was just a risk by me. It wasn’t calculated. It was me bending to where I came from and things that I had seen.
I wrote that two nights after Nelson Mandela died, and I thought about all the things that he went through, and what we go through as Black Americans. The sentiment was, “I’m feeling real Black.” We forget about what that feeling is. We can’t leave it to outsiders to tell us what it feels like to be that. You’ve got to wear it. That’s why I say “this wide,” in regards to doing it with Kanye, because he did it his way with his audience. We’ve got to use even what we don’t have to better ourselves. Take these high-risk environments and use them to triumph, instead of using them as a crutch.
On Love You to Death, there’s “College Daze,” where you sort of forgive a woman for her adventurous past. Why is that sentiment important to you? Being that candid can be hard for both men and women.
People aren’t really honest with themselves about anything. That’s one of the reasons why we ended up with Trump in the White House. For some reason, as much as it looks crazy, it’s honestly him. People don’t understand that, at a certain point, people just want honesty in the end.
I have an overall theory when it comes to women and men, especially in my culture. I don’t know how it works elsewhere. If I’m 18 or 19 and I’m a white guy, I may have more privileges and things at that age and be able to see more things. As a Black male, I know that you don’t see sh-t unit you’ve got money. Period. There’s no one trying to take you out of the country. Nobody’s going to buy you some fucking luxury shoes. You’re not going to lay up under some girl and sleep on her couch. It’s not going to happen. You’re not going to end up in Cancun for free, just chilling. That’s just what it is.
So when you hit 28 as a man and you’re starting to get your life in order, that’s when you start to see things. And you do want love and you want someone to spend that time with and share the things that you’re starting to get. The unfortunate thing is that a woman of the same age has probably experienced more of these things. The first thing that you see and you hear is that there’s a 19-year-old girl that probably wouldn’t give you the time of day but she’s talking to this 28-year-old guy. He just took her to Paris. She’s in Paris before she’s 20. She’s at Puerto Vallarta in Mexico by the time she’s 23. And you’re 19 and don’t even have any stamps in your f–king passport. You’re just sitting there, like, “One day when I get money, I’m going to go crazy!”
The whole point of “College Daze” is, once you’re over [that lifestyle], that man that you’re trying to meet… Whatever those things are that you’ve done in life as a woman, you can pretty much expect that your man has not enjoyed any of that. So try to have fun with him if you truly love him and you love for him. That’s a Black male thing. We don’t get to do sh-t. I wouldn’t have dared talked to a girl at 22, maybe a certain few but there were more of those ones where I was like, “I can’t talk to her!”
I remember feeling like that when I went to Miami for spring break in college. Those women down there seemed like they were out of my league. I was broke and felt like I had nothing to offer. And there’s all this talk about girls like these certain type of nice guys. That’s not true! That’s not to say anything about their character, but it’s just not the truth. That’s not what we were taught.
The same way that a woman was taught about how her life was going to go from the princess aspect of things, we were taught certain things, too. We were taught that you better go and get money so that you have something to give because you are just not enough. Not because you’re not built right spiritually or that you don’t have your heart in the right place. Money pays bills and unfortunately, that’s the measurement of how hard you work. That’s what money is. You can’t just say, “Money is the devil!” It’s equivalent to my hard work. And it’s the only way I can show you — to give you a piece of my hard work. But I can’t give it to you if I’m 25 and I ain’t got shit.
And no disrespect to women! They do Women’s Studies in college. But they don’t do Male Studies and what it means to be man. I’m trying to find the rest of the things that make me whole. I need to know them. I don’t want to feel like I’m just an ATM running around.
You had so many hit records that you’ve penned in the voices of women, but you’re also a husband and a father trying to figure it all out.
I was around a bunch of men. My grandfather was the guy. He obviously was from another generation. He only graduated from the sixth grade. He owned his house and cars. He was a master mason. He built half of the city at the time. He was a man’s man. His hand were all messed up front concrete work. I lived with a full-blown, fix-everything, no-nonsense man. You might not have liked him at times, but you couldn’t deny his work ethic. That’s who raised me. And my mother embodied everything that women have in their qualities. I had respect for both of them.
Have you ever had someone “Rihanna flex” on you?
Somebody flexed on me in high school and decided to leave me at prom and go with the guy [she had] been dating previously. That was a very humbling experience for me. As I grow older, I realize it was knowledge. [From then on] I put myself in a place that if you were to leave me, it’d mean you’d have to leave everything else. Not money. Anybody can get that. But you’ll never get another man to think about you how I do. And that’s the idea of the song. Nobody wants to leave that. That’s beyond the cars and the money.
— THE-DREAM (@TheKingDream) December 6, 2016
Is Love You to Death at all related to next year’s Love Affair album?
There’s no direct connection. Love Affair is done. It drops on March 24. You’ll start to see that rollout at the top of the year. I have thousands of songs that have their own lives. They’re not loved any less than the other songs. I just thought that this was the right time to speak with these songs. Especially with the record “Lemon Lean.” It’s about you now trying to understand me. We hear all the time about trying to understand the woman. I think I have a good grasp of that. I have to give you some truths about me and how I feel on this side for all my men that can’t say it how I would.