- SPIN Rating:7 of 10
Label: Def Jam
The-Dream's fourth record — handily titled IV Play — is one of impatience. "I can give a fuck about the foreplay / I want it now," he demands on the slithering title track. "Fuck a love song / I wanna fuck you," he purrs on "Michael." "Where have you been? / I needed you then," he pleads on "Where Have You Been." This is R&B music, of course, so there's nothing unusual about moving straight to the sex. But it's nonetheless a faint signal that the most idiosyncratic songwriter in the genre has put out an album that gives off a whiff of — ugh — normality.
But let's not bury the lead: IV Play is a very good album. Though prone to repetition in the past 18 months, the man otherwise known as Terius Nash bends his sound in new ways, and still writes melodic and instrumental hooks that sprout up and wrap around songs in unexpected ways. Yet it would feel like more of a triumph if only we could keep from judging it next to its four predecessors, sonically expansive and thematically dramatic albums that tower — at least for now — over this one. Such is the price of genius.
Anyway, "Fuck a love song" sounds like an innocuous enough lyric. But this is a man who wrote a love song literally called "Luv Songs," an utterly brilliant track off his first album (2007's Love/Hate) that elaborately compares fucking to beat-building, with 808s and kicks and cymbals slyly popping up as he calls them out. This is a man who ended his next album, 2009's Love Vs. Money, by dedicating an entire track to having sex to R. Kelly's 12 Play — an act so sacrosanct that he advises to "clean the CD, check for scratches." He's written songs solely about hair and lipstick, written multi-part suites and blended a song into its remix and called back to a character — Nikki — from his first record, whose story he still insists is getting its own dedicated LP. So it's unavoidable that an album of songs, merely songs — is going to feel like that moment when you realize the ride is ending.
Still, this is The-Dream. Many of the songs-just-songs here are wild fun and, most importantly, the type of thing that no one else in R&B would attempt. He manages to draw water out of a well of familiarity: "Equestrian" lays the hook from Ciara's "Ride" (which he wrote) over the type of pillowy beat he minted on J. Holiday's "Bed" (an early success), and it feels so right, while "Michael" pushes the ridiculousness of his own "Mr. Yeah" deep into the red. He also nudges his sound to places it has not yet explored — indeed, if there's one benefit of The-Dream writing an album that isn't artfully composed from front to back, it’s the type of stylistic sloshing that he indulges here.
The title track is a bald homage to '90s R&B — complete with the whiny, winding keyboard line that mimics a guitar solo already in progress — but it's the song here that most feels like it came from somewhere deep inside. It's at once studied and playful, like a student who knows he's going to ace a test and starts showing off. "Too Early" is an unexpected collaboration with blues revivalist Gary Clark Jr., in which The-Dream slathers processed vocals over his guest's gutter-twang riff, an effect that deftly criss-crosses decades of R&B. And "Where Have You Been" stuns by being maybe the structurally simplest song in The-Dream's solo catalog — it hits you in the gut with just one key change.
But ultimately, there's not nearly enough experimentation to justify the tradeoff. IV Play is The-Dream's first-ever surface-level LP. Whereas his old albums blossom and bloom with ideas — with bridges catchier than choruses and outros hookier than both — there are too many songs here propped up on one simplistic notion. Coincidentally or not, those are the ones featuring stars like Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and Big Sean: conceptually straightforward and underwritten tracks that hope you're blinded by neon names. "High Art" and "Turnt" — the latter a late replacement for a previous Bey collaboration, played at early listening sessions, that could have been the album's truest classic — recycle the same tired "turn up" refrain. There are Easter-egg moments of true inspiration — the outro on "Michael" or the bridge on "IV Play" or the screwed-down refrain of "Too Early" — but these are now the exception, not the rule.
The album's final third features a few perfectly enjoyable songs ("Self-Conscious" and "New Orleans") that go down easy only if you don't judge them on a curve. Yet a curve is what The-Dream's career demands: IV Play is the album where we pull out our favorite tracks and tweak our expectations going forward. The final song is "Slow It Down," which lashes out at a strip-club DJ for playing EDM, but it's advice The-Dream should take himself: Despite gestating for years, IV Play is an album that feels unattended to. He wants sex and he wants it now, the unexpected flights of melody and mind-bending transitions that made his old albums twinkle and glisten be damned. He once bragged that his "sex intelligence makes all you other niggas irrelevant." So what then will be the result of his first dumbed-down record?