For those who found 2010’s Love King to be a rich and tuneful selection of pop-laced R&B, sparkling with lascivious charm and memorable hooks, comes an even grander, reinforced follow-up with a star-studded guest list. For those who heard nothing but vacuity and forced feelings from The-Dream through his previous output, brace yourself for more of the same but with an expansive company of Def Jam-affiliated collaborators to thicken the mix.
Whatever your stance on the North Carolina pop stalwart’s sound, it’s universally acknowledged that The-Dream hasn’t been able to penetrate the mainstream in the same way as the artists he writes for. Terius Nash, the man behind the moniker, has yet to hit the #1 sales spot for a single or a full-length as a solo artist, while his work with Christopher Stewart saw Rihanna’s Grammy Award-winning “Umbrella” top the charts in more than eight countries, to name but one example. Despite the absence of a bona fide radio killer, The-Dream has still managed to earn heaps of critical acclaim for each of his previous albums, which consequently landed me in the former category of listeners mentioned above. In 2011, Nash dropped an LP under his own name, allowing his music to become a cathartic vehicle for openly dealing with his failed marriage to Christina Milian. The album was titled 1977, the year of the artist’s birth, and it offered a much more haphazard aesthetic, a disappointing stop-gap between IV Play and everything that came before it — a sign of things to come perhaps?
IV Play began life as a series of setbacks; originally titled Love Affair and slated for 2011, it eventually went live on the Def Jam Executive Vice President’s VEVO channel last week, seven days before its official release and in all its rambunctious splendor. The-Dream has employed the use of big names in his music before — Mariah Carey and Kanye West featured on 2009’s Love vs. Money, while Rihanna and Fabolous (who makes a return on IV Play) lent their talents to his debut album, Love Hate. But the guest list has never felt as overpowering as it does here, where outside singers, rappers, and guitarists battle for space inside the fantastically produced, but altogether empty pieces that host them.
Nash points his celebrity legion in a direction that veers from the steadfast prowess of Love King and the confessional mope of 1977. IV Play is an R&B romp, an aural sex fest that continually bombards its audience with carnal exploits, glitz, and glamor. The excessive use of outside recruitment could very well have been the tactic that earned The-Dream his first #1, but then he went and released “Slow It Down” and “IV Play” as lead singles. Both of these songs are agreeable, as it happens, but the former spouts a chorus deploring the actions of most mainstream DJs, while the latter features one of Nash’s most hilarious lines yet. The title track goes beyond crass, even for The-Dream’s standards: “I don’t give a fuck about the foreplay,” he asserts, “I want it now/ I’m talkin’ straight sex” — it’s a wonderful instance of self-parody that sets the scene for the record at hand: an awkward fumble that somehow manages to break into a delightfully appealing refrain — it’s empty and void of sentiment, yet it’s still unbelievably catchy.
The only major stylistic change comes on album highlight “Too Early,” which features Gary Clark, Jr. pressing a slow-blues echo between Nash’s Auto-Tune’d croon. It’s one of the few songs that maintains any sense of atmosphere, a component that has been sucked out of pretty much every other track by bawdy, prurient, and infatuated lyrics. It’s also a stark contrast to the brazen low point, “Michael,” where Nash sounds like Joe Pesci piping into some luminary void before quipping “it sound’s like Michael don’t it?” — no, it really doesn’t — and then, “Fuck that other nigga/ He say he love you/ I just wanna fuck you/ over the weekend.” It’s completely ridiculous, but at the same time, it almost works because of the track’s persistent melody, which remains firmly in tact. Even as a barrel-scraper, the song still retains some weird distortion of pop integrity.
Elsewhere, “Crazy” follows through in providing an excellent, downtempo mood that offers a platform for one of the best vocal cuts on the album, though the primary split for this piece, “Loving You,” sounds confusingly like those “motherfucking dance songs” Nash scorns on “Slow It Down.” There are indeed some outstanding moments on IV Play (“Turnt” and “High Art,” in particular), but whereas “Yamaha,” “Nikki Part 2,” and “The Abyss” made for a delicious trilogy of revenge, regret, and anguish that was potent enough to demand repeat listens on Love King, the “Crazy” sequence ends up sounding forced and farcical in comparison; this is pop music at its most hollow — sure, it’s fun to listen to while you have the patience to pursue it, but unlike previous material, its charm soon evaporates into the R&B disco ether from which it materialized.
The appeal wears thin in this case, because there is nothing behind the smoke and mirrors, nothing underneath the magician’s hat, and even though it might be painfully sincere in some instances (“Self- Conscious”) and just straight-up graceless in others (“Michael”), the music seems to favor garishness as its primary objective. That leads to a disenchanted listening experience, which won’t last beyond a few repeat plays. Whereas on Love King, The-Dream’s exceptional production and uncanny delivery was pitted against poignant content that tactfully dealt with personal issues in real-time, on IV Play, he sounds incredibly disengaged from what he’s singing about. That emotional sentiment was pivotal to the urgent grip of past efforts, and while his latest album is brimming with similar technical prowess, the lack of drive makes IV Play momentarily gratifying, but essentially disposable. There’s enough pulling power to draw you in, just not enough to get you hooked.