After three years and the one-two-three punch of ‘Love Hate’, ‘Love vs. Money’ and ‘Love King’, The-Dream returns with his fourth album ‘IV Play’. The frustrated ‘1977’ was made in the interim period – first released as a free download under The-Dream’s real name Terius Nash in August 2011 and then officially at the end of last year – but this is the big one people have been waiting for: the follow-up to a trio of stratospheric noughties R&B classics. All fourteen tracks from the album are up on his Youtube to stream right now and, here’s ten thoughts on it following a first spin.
- Clean sonics, messy emotions
The-Dream is an amazing musician with a one-track mind: his career basically built on pristine, forward thinking production and songwriting that revels in everyday clutter and superficiality. His classicist style isn’t great because it’s particularly unique but because it goes further than most would even dare and really nails it.
- False starts
Aiming for the heights is what The-Dream does best but ‘IV Play’ immediately seems like a bit of a struggle. With the repeated delays, the stop-gap releases ‘1977’ and the abandonment of the initial lead singles Roc and Dope Bitch you sense that this is was much harder to make than his past albums.
While his best work – like listing all those girls’ names, their favourite drinks and phone networks on Love King or making the word “umbrella” eleven syllables long – feels intuitive, ‘IV Play’ can be clunky and forced.
- The scourge of club pop
To begin at the end, the Outro skit features a pitched down voice bemoaning the “wack ass, up-tempo songs” that dominate the heights of pop charts today. The-Dream wants to take things “back to ’07” and re-introduce some nuance and passion to the game. That’s a fair argument but it isn’t a particularly good one. His criticism of the charts is fogeyish and reductionist and with regard to a revision people have been doing that for a while already and: the troublesome alt-R&B tag is often framed in terms of race but as at least as much about emphasizing authenticity and sincerity against the perceived conveyor belt of club pop. The point may not have been made with as much skill or clarity as it has here but it has been made and, if he knows the album won’t be played on top 40 radio anyway, it feels tired.
As mentioned before, The-Dream wears his influences on his sleeve but his strength is pushing them to their limit. The familiar touchstones Prince and Michael Jackson are heavily alluded to, as is Ginuwine on Equestrian and R Kelly on the title track.
- The Suite
In terms of the trademark “suite”, ‘IV Play’ follows the story of a hedonist looking for salvation through love.
Closely following the arc of the story, the first part of the album is has loads of features from rappers, the best of which is a verse by 2 Chainz proving he’s the having the most fun in hip-hop today. When the current turns things switch to a duet with Kelly Rowland, a ballad with Texan blues guitarist Gary Clark Jr. and when it’s time to really roll back the years there’s Slow Down with his old mate Fabolous.
The range is good and both The-Dream himself and his guests are accomplished but it’s all a bit too neat. It’s exemplified in bringing Jay-Z in for the opener High Art: he’s undeniably a titan of his genre but is really more a model for staying alongside the leading pack today. It would be a shame for The-Dream to become the R&B equivalent of that so early.
- Sheer Exuberance
Despite some really good moments like New Orleans and Self Conscious towards the end, ‘IV Play’ just doesn’t make you think “wow” or even laugh enough.
At the end of the album, The-Dream makes it clear that the salvation he’s talking about is more about music rather a specific person. Holy Love is celebratory but bleak and goes to the heart of the problem with the album. It’s well-made and sincere but lacks flair and spirit. It’s too reactionary to be a true paean to the power of music (it was done with far less musing and more fun on his first albums) and too staid to be a raw emotional examination like ‘1977’. ‘IV Play’ is perfectly good but The-Dream can be far more that, right?