Tuesday, March 10, 2009

The-Dream: R&B's Answer to Radiohead?

By Evan Rytlewski
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While most R&B singers coast in the final minute or two of their songs, reciting established hooks until the fadeout, The-Dream saves his finest twists for these closing moments. Three-fourths of the way through "Sweat it Out," the closest the singer's new album, Love Vs Money, comes to a conventional slow jam, the spell breaks when The-Dream begins yelling, realizing that something isn't right. And it's not until six minutes into the swaggering "Fancy" that black-shirted 808 drums storm the song, shutting it down on a chilling, abrupt note.

Unlike R. Kelly, who The-Dream invites immediate comparisons to with to his KY-slick voice, for The-Dream sex is merely a starting point. The singer is too ambitious, too fired-up to spend his songs lying in bed, gazing contentedly at feminine beauty. His album is loud and restless, and his storytelling matches the pace of his shifty, accelerating rhythms, so Love Vs Money's one-night stands give way to burning, intense revelations.

As this blog has argued too many times, pop music is in a renaissance right now. Top 40 airwaves are more vibrant than they've been for over a decade; the boy bands and teen starlets that once ruled have been succeeded by a new cast of innovators, auteurs, visionaries and veterans. And no facet of Top 40 has been more improved than R&B, a genre that for years was so closely aligned with commercial rap that it lost much of its own character. Southern crunk injected some welcome life into R&B half a decade ago—see Usher's Confessions and Ciara's Goodies—but the genre's latest turn is even better. Producers have begun drawing not from rap but from electronic music, abducting grinding, epileptic synths from European dancefloors and tossing them into urban songs, where they fight for air like a fish dropped from its bowl.

It's a sharp sound, and The-Dream, along with his production partner Christopher "Tricky" Stewart, are largely responsible its radio presence. They're the ones that penned Rihanna's blockbuster "Umbrella," and ample other hits, including Beyonce's "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)." Without them its doubtful Kanye West could have conceived "Flashing Lights," or that Ne-Yo could have reworked those "Flashing Lights" synths into "Miss Independent."

For its flawless polish and its thematic cohesiveness, Love Vs Money has already won some of the year's strongest reviews. The New York Times pegs it as a certain hit, and compares it to Radiohead in its ambitions. One blogger admired the album's baroque complexity, likening it to Sufjan Stevens. In truth, though, both comparisons overreach—this is an unabashed pop album, painted entirely from a palette of contemporary Top 40 sounds, from the posse-chanted "Ays!" that T.I. resurrected to the twitchy, ficka-ficka beats that Timbaland trademarked. The-Dream builds on all these sounds and layers hook after hook after hook, crafting a record with the immediacy of a singles collection but the narrative arch, mystery and momentum of a film noir movie. Love Vs. Money makes the case for the promise of pop music better than any blogger ever could.

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