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The-Dream’s “IV Play” is versatile, visionary R&B

Grammy-winning singer-songwriter and producer enlists Beyonce, Jay-Z, Kelly Rowland and 2 Chainz on fifth album

Lauren Carter | 5/29/2013, 5:36 p.m.
The-Dream may not have the star power or name recognition of some of his R&B contemporaries. He’s spent a good ...
The-Dream's fifth album, "IV Play," dropped this week.

The-Dream may not have the star power or name recognition of some of his R&B contemporaries. He’s spent a good chunk of his career in the shadows creating hits for the likes of Beyonce, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Mariah Carey and Usher and turning other artists into superstars. But on his fifth solo album, "IV Play," the singer-songwriter and producer delivers another stellar solo effort and proves that whether working behind the scenes or taking center stage, he’s an R&B force to be reckoned with.

As on his previous albums, The-Dream is both versatile and visionary in terms of his sonic approach, pushing electronic R&B forward without losing sight of the past. His influences span from Prince and R. Kelly to classical music, and they all shape his lush, layered soundscapes. Songs like the infectious “Michael,” “Where Have You Been” featuring Kelly Rowland and the funk-laced title track take a more traditional R&B approach, while the blues-tinged gem “Too Early” featuring guitarist Gary Clark Jr. and sinewy standout “Turnt” featuring Beyonce and 2 Chainz demonstrate his experimental side.

“Loving You/Crazy” is another example of The-Dream’s freeform stylings: He takes what could have been a straightforward pop-funk number and deconstructs it, switching tempo and embarking on a seven-minute sonic excursion about a romantic obsession.

Diverse subject matter

The self-proclaimed Radio Killa also takes liberties in terms of subject matter. He continues to explore the highs and lows of love, alternately boasting about his bedroom prowess and lamenting about relationship drama on songs such as “Holy Love” and the atmospheric “New Orleans.” He also mixes racy tracks that have unprintable titles with sensitive songs like “Self Conscious,” in which he waves away his lady’s perceived flaws and promises that he adores everything about her. It’s this freedom to explore diverse sounds and ideas — to blend the come-ons and sex-laced crooning that are R&B’s trademark with less predictable sentiments and sonic choices — that sets The-Dream apart from his peers.

That’s not to say everything is perfect. One of the album’s few missteps comes courtesy of Jay-Z, whose subpar verse on “High Art” sounds like it was phoned in between business meetings. But if alarmingly average verses from rap idols is the worst an album can do, then it’s doing pretty well. The long-awaited “IV Play” offers an expansive vision of R&B that explores The-Dream’s complete inner world rather than recycling the same formula for 14 songs. As R&B disappears from the mainstream or morphs into dance music, The-Dream continues to stay the course and blaze new trails, whether or not people know his name.