During a Breakfast Club interview last April, Charlamagne tha God posed one of his classic hot-takes to Terius Nash, a.k.a. The-Dream, about a relatively new competitor, the Weeknd:
Charlamagne: Call it what it is: He’s a bootleg Dream—he’s a Nap.
Terius Nash: If that's what it is, I stole from Kelly and Prince, though.
It’s not a new topic the artist, and The-Dream called it as he saw it, in a calm and self-aware fashion. He's never been shy, on wax or with the media, when it comes to paying homage to his predecessors or targeting those he perceives as drawing too heavily on his style. He is as territorial or diplomatic as the situation dictates.
This week, The-Dream reunited with his once-regular collaborator, Tricky Stewart, for a new seven-song EP entitled Royalty: The Prequel. The release seemed to be a surprise, dropped online only a day after it was announced on Instagram. Contextually, however, it was less surprising, and decidedly strategic. Last week, R&B’s reliable and charming uptown Lothario Trey Songz released Trigga, his sixth and arguably strongest full-length album. Add to this the reality that all spring and summer, we’ve drunk, danced, drove, shopped to, and absorbed catchy Chris Brown hooks via osmosis (“Loyal,” “Show Me”) whether we’ve wanted to or not. Coming from the man who sang, on 1977’s “Ghetto,” “There’s only one No. 1/All these other n****s is my sons,” Royalty: The Prequel feels like a defensive maneuver designed to remind listeners who the real king of R&B is. The EP presents Terius vs. Everybody; it entertains the notion of love and romance, but is ultimately dismissive and combative to an unappreciative audience.
“Duet” leads us into the tape with a nod to a legend—“Put your Monica on my Biggie”—and sets the tone with a fundamentally Dream-style sex jam boasting the same ratchet-glam production found on “Pussy,” from last year's IV Play. The-Dream plants shoutouts and tributes to those who inspired him throughout the remainder of the record. But tonally speaking, the song is a decoy of an opener, as the themes start to get progressively more personal and raw track by track.
“Culture” illuminates a Parisian scene that The-Dream’s Instagram account has depicted more literally; luxe bars and restaurants, boutique-hopping. “Black Chinchilla/Jordans on, shopping spree,” the underlying vocal sample chants. But in the midst of this designer landscape he croaks, “We ain’t perfect/There’s still so many places we can go.” He balances the boastful machismo of the lyrics with a self-deprecating goal to aim higher.
Royalty: The Prequel finds Terius Nash failing to recognize that his own worst enemy and greatest competition is himself.
“Pimp C Lives” hints at a radio single gone awry. It recalls the sexed-up pop production of "Rolex Music" and "Ghetto," and even his efforts on Jay Z’s "Holy Grail." The impossibly catchy refrain of “Fat ass, thick thighs, smoked out in my ride...sippin' like Pimp C still alive” reminds us of his capabilities (as if we could ever forget). It feels like an "anything you can do, I can do better" response to the clever hooks and physicality in Breezy and Trigga’s music.
Then, on "Outkast,” the strongest song on Royalty: The Prequel, he cuts to the chase: “I know you think I’m just the same as them little n****s, them little n****s/Them bullshitters, them bullshitters, baby, you’re too mean to be fucking with them little n****s.” He describes “real love shit” as the feeling “when that first OutKast hit.” Historically, The-Dream has centered his music at the intersection of love and money. On this tape, the key relationship seems to be love and music. This is perhaps a musician’s career entering a new phase, with the narrator ruminating on what was, and laughing at the new suitors of his old flame. Those “little n****s, bullshitters” can be swapped out for R&B compatriots, competition for attention.
On “Wedding Bells” (ostensibly the sequel to 1977's “Wedding Crasher”) he chuckles about America’s divorce rate, admitting he’s “Mr. Have-A-Wedding just to have a party” and offering “I don’t give a fuck/You give a fuck about everything” by way of explanation to his partner, who tells him he’s got “too much fuckin baggage.” The hook, "I hear wedding bells," feels as tongue-in-cheek as it does declarative or romantic. It’s about as impersonal as a love song could be.
He sings, “You’ll never be loved like you were loved the first time...all you can do is compete with someone you’ll never see again,” on "Lake Michigan." It seems like The-Dream is facing the reality that he may never reproduce romantically, or musically, the highs he reached writing about his first love and muse, "Nikki," on Love Hate. Coming from the man who is widely considered amongst his most devout fans to have peaked with that first solo album, the pieces of Terius Nash's psyche start to come together.
The album finishes on a particularly raw note, with "Cold," a final blow in the battle against Everyone. It’s a confessional set to the Mobb Deep "Shook Ones Pt. II" beat, which serves as a last homage to the greats. He shares a conversational story about a romantic conquest, reeling the way a lovesick man would to a bartender over Bacardi: “She threw them beats on/Starts bumpin' Frank Ocean right in front of me/Now it’s Trey Songz, followed by the Weeknd/Then Miguel, now Drake’s on/Then it’s C Breezy, followed by Usher/Watchin' all the n****s earfuck her.” He goes on to conclude, "I’m not her favorite no more...goddamn."
The-Dream is self-aware, and tragically self-defeating in the process. Mired by ego and what appears to be a reactive release, Royalty: The Prequel finds Terius Nash failing to recognize that his own worst enemy and greatest competition is himself. It's not R. Kelly, it's not Prince, and it's certainly not Chris Brown.
The-Dream’s greatest threat is the man that wrote "Nikki," "Playin in Her Hair," and "Falsetto" back in 2007. His greatest threat is the man who dryly burns Charlamagne mid-interview with the statement, “I’m just too rich, I don’t care.” Maybe amidst the personal trials and tribulations that 2014 brought, The-Dream forgot to focus on the true opponent. He only has himself to compete with, and revisiting the highs of Love Hate and Love vs. Money would be the ultimate homages he could pay. His creative genius would be greater if he only measured himself against his own standards.
Grace Gordon is a marketer by day and R&B aesthete by night. She tweets here.