Terius "The-Dream" Nash, the man who made his name writing Hot 100-topping mega-hits like "Umbrella" for Rihanna and "Single Ladies (Put a Ring On It)" for Beyoncé, hasn't helmed a song nearly that big in years. Still, he remains one of the most in-demand figures in pop and R&B, co-writing nearly a third of the tracks on Rihanna's Unapologetic and almost half of Beyoncé's 4, including four of its five singles. In conversation, he casually mentions sessions with Jay-Z, Timbaland, and "Justin" (Timberlake not Bieber — though Nash wrote the latter's first smash — but the distinction hardly matters). All of which makes the stalled state of his solo career even more puzzling.
Though he helped pave the way for similarly boundary-pushing R&B breakouts like Frank Ocean, the Weeknd, and Miguel, Nash has struggled mightily to get radio play for his solo songs during the past few years. It didn't used to be this way: His first four singles ("Shawty is a 10," "Falsetto," "I Luv Your Girl" and "Rockin' That Shit," released in 2007 and 2008) were staples on urban radio and modest pop crossovers. But since then, his visibility with the masses has fallen off a cliff, and his forthcoming album IV Play's lead-up singles have been non-starters. "Roc," a thumping party ballad, was a commerical flop; and the catchy, breakbeat-mimicking "Dope Chick" was a minor R&B radio hit, but did nothing to propel the album forward. Neither track will appear on IV Play, which is out May 28.
His new single fights back. It's called "Slow it Down," and it finds The-Dream openly lashing out at the music world: "DJ, you know you wrong / Enough with the motherfucking dance songs." On the one hand, The-Dream likes to play it cool about his commercial stagnation, but "Slow it Down" is an admission of his frustration.
"People are free to make whatever records they're gonna make," he says of the single's message. "It's when people are the best at what they do and it's not accepted."
The-Dream is sitting in a conference room at Def Jam's New York offices. He is subdued and dressed casually in a black Billionaire Boys Club hoodie with two gold chains softly sliding around his torso. When discussing his struggles at radio, he is calm — not the animated guy who would emerge later at the IV Play listening session, singing along and cracking jokes to break the tension. No, here he holds forth, the words spilling out in a long stream, but always composed and measured.
"Records that we're talking about — dance records — have no message," he says, careful not to hack away at the credibility of any one specific artist. "It's not saying anything about anything. It's not a song, actually, it's just noise. It's great for who it's great for, and it's fine. But there's a line. You start to bring your bar down on what songwriting is and what a song should be about, and that's when it kind of gets messed-up."
Of course, he isn't the only artist swimming upstream — this is an acutely tumultuous time for hip-hop and R&B. The group of crossover stars — Usher, Chris Brown, Rihanna, Drake, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne — has gotten so small that it's almost like an exclusive club, and even most of that group has acquiesced to the oontz-oontz of pop radio. The disconnect is strong and bewildering. Miguel's "Adorn" set a Billboard record in January after spending 20 weeks at the top of the Hip-Hop/R&B airplay chart, but it was still treated as a curio on pop radio, if it was played at all. And despite Miguel having arguably the most popular R&B song of the modern era, his album Kaleidescope Dream has yet to go gold, selling less copies than artists like Frank Ocean and the Weeknd who have just started flirting with radio play.
On the failure of "Adorn" to reach a pop audience, he says, somewhat cryptically: "It's, like, put a new Benz in a used-car lot and people still not gonna buy it."
The elephant in the pop-radio room is race, and it's a topic from which The-Dream does not shy away. The final shot of the "Slow it Down" video lingers on text that reads: "I THOUGHT MUSIC WAS TO BE THE ONLY PLACE WHERE COLORS DIDN'T MATTER. I WAS WRONG." He maintains that there are racial barriers in pop music, but suggests a more complicated dynamic than straightforward white racism. "It's actually what blacks expect from blacks," he says. "You know we need this, you know what message we need. You know how great we are at writing a great message and moving the needle in our own type of way. So when you bail out, there's nobody to bail us out. It's under my own power to say, 'I'm not doing that, I'll just keep doing what I'm doing till it gets back to the place where it needs to get to.'"
It is debatable whether The-Dream's insistence on maintaining the purity of R&B is more valiant or stubborn, but he's not been tempted by the whims of the market to betray his own sound and aesthetic. He also would rather leave the politicking to everyone else. Ebro Darden, the program director for influential New York radio station Hot 97, observes: "I think he has had so much success writing and making everyone else’s music amazing that he’d rather not deal with the bullshit games of trying to get mainstream media to support his music... I also know that he is against trying to make Top-40-sounding music to chase airplay."
"I think I have the respect of my peers, and that's the only one that matters," says The-Dream. "I definitely don't carry a certain respect with social media or whatever it is, because what a person means in music doesn't mean anything today. What I'm doing means absolutely nothing to them," he says. "That's why as much as we want to speak out most of the time against the Grammys, the point actually is that those things are decided amongst our peers in music, on what's good or not."
Since The-Dream released his first record in 2007, no one person in R&B has been responsible for more great albums. He has been the genre's most rewarding male solo artist since R. Kelly and hit a zenith in 2009 with the one-two punch of his operatic second album Love vs. Money and Electrik Red's How to Be a Lady: Vol. 1, a Prince-inspired girl group/Svengali pairing. IV Play, conceived as a double album but now roughly 15 songs, remains unfinished; it has yet to be mixed and ordered, and The-Dream is still waiting on guest verses from Jay-Z and Big Sean. But even without polish, it sounded like it could be one of the best records of the year — just like every one of The-Dream's albums before it. And he's not hesitant to tout his accomplishment, or distance himself from the commercial machinery around it.
"Your album's probably definitely not going to be better than mine; it's just not going to happen," he says. "Whether [people] buy it or not really has nothing to do with me."