Cult R&B singer (and blockbuster R&B songwriter) The-Dream recently played his first Canadian show ever during a headlining set at Pop Montreal. It was a kind of weird decision on the part of the admittedly weird Montreal art-pop fest considering most of his success has come from urban radio.
But it's not just five album's worth of The-Dream’s fizzy-lifting tenor singing bawdy, textural, love and sex jams that's given him currency with the alt set; it's also his reputation as a songwriting virtuoso. As Terius Nash, he's written career-defining songs for artists like Justin Bieber ("Baby") and Rihanna ("Umbrella") as well as epochal anthems like Beyonce's "Single Ladies," and insightful lowkey cuts like Kelly Rowland's "Dirty Laundry." Recently, he's been trying things in hip-hop: he wrote summer's Jay Z and Justin Timberlake collaboration "Holy Grail," and has production and writing credits (as well as a guest spot) on Pusha T's hugely-anticipated solo record, "My Name Is My Name."
Earlier this year, The-Dream released "IV Play," a slightly distended, more cynical take on his signature lewd and loquacious R&B. It has less in common with the halcyon, hook-y songs found on his first three records, which make up the "Love" trilogy, and is more in line with 2012's ambling, aggressive "1977" -- a record he put out as Terius Nash.
We caught up with The-Dream in The Olympia's subterranean green room, where he was chilling in a cozy varsity jacket, grey jeans, and black-on-white Adidas Superstars. Like his diarist perspective records, Nash was an open book and we talked about Atlanta's impact on pop music, Kanye West and being misunderstood, and how social media is ruining R&B.
In your songs, you've touched on the ways our online interactions can impact romantic relationships. Can you tell me more?
Social media has changed everything, and ultimately it changed R&B. R&B was a romantic interaction. In the '60s R&B was a place where you went to say and feel a certain thing, and now that's been taken away. That interaction was originally done through music and now it's not. Nobody falls in love with a person through music anymore, they fall in love through iChat. You don't fall in love staring at them from across the room. A guy probably doesn't even approach a girl like that anymore! You're there probably because he found you online and said, 'Meet me there!'
So it changes everything. It changes love. It changes people's expectations and how we deal with each other. The more that we know, the less we know about each other. You have to be in front of people. And it's just this imploding situation of dumb people saying very dumb things, hoping to get what they want out of whatever scenario and move on with no real glimpse of what life is.
Atlanta's long been a musical hub within rap and R&B, but it seems the specific sounds linked to the city -- like trap -- and certain producers are really infiltrating the pop world. The most extreme example I can give is Miley…
Miley Cyrus working with Mike WiLL! Atlanta is one of the most relevant places for anyone from the outside looking in, just because it’s still a certain type of wholesomeness in the people there. You don't go to get that when you're looking for music, but with Atlanta you get it anyway. And we don't, from our aspect, even respect what it is that we do. We don't respect the changes that we can make throughout the world. Atlanta's the hub right now, the culture of music. But we don't respect what the feeling is, the nucleus of what we mean to the world because we're too busy trying to hustle it.
Q&A continues after video slideshow
How do you feel about the term 'indie R&B?'
That's what people try to call it when it's not shiny anymore. R&B is the indie of it and all the rest of this shit is a hybrid. If it's not "1+1" it's a hybrid, if it's not the record I did with Gary Clark Jr. on this last album, it's a hybrid. All of that shit actually isn't R&B.
It's interesting to see who participates, defines, and consumes 'indie R&B,' too. Does 'race music' still exist?
Of course. It's more flattering to watch someone white do soul than someone black because it's like, 'Okay, and...?' It's more acceptable to watch Justin Timberlake sing those records than an artist who you [think is supposed to make those] type of records. For them, it's like 'Oh that's cool, but when are you going to give me that trap ratchetness record?' Fucking Adele sings "1+1" and everyone's jumping up and down doing cartwheels! Bey sings it and it's like, 'Cool, that's what she does.'
We've both seen how things have unfolded with Kanye West rejecting the way he's characterized by the media. What can you tell me about being a contemporary musician and an ambitious black man?
Oh my god. [Rolls eyes, sighs] As Richard Pryor would say, it's hard just to wake up as a human being and do regular shit. You add black on top of that? People say, 'Well, you have all these things so you shouldn't whine.' It's true if that's what you're in it for. But Kanye passionately, very literally loves music. More than those other guys. Maybe our problem is that we think people actually give a fuck about music, because if we stop that then it's like, "Well, you don't see what I'm trying to do anyway." So it's a protective [instinct] he has, that I have, that every producer has who watched Michael Jackson and Quincy Jones be accepted a certain type of way has in their mind. And then to watch what you do be accepted differently?
Quincy was a god. I probably have to write what I've written for the next 20 years to even think about getting some type of real accolade -- even from my own people! So you're pulling for yourself. They made that joke about being a hypeman, but you've got to be your hypeman because who’s going to tell you you're the shit? That's something my grandfather taught me. He said, "If you're going to wait for someone else to tell you you’re doing something and going in the right direction, you’re going to be waiting all day." They don’t owe you that validation, and you have to be mentally prepared. Most of the time, 'Ye is just prepared mentally to think that nobody gives a fuck about what he's doing, or how he's impacted music, or culture. Of course he talks about it in that way, but it doesn't change if it's real or not.
So that Quincy Jones-level validation is what you're after? How does your solo career as The-Dream fit into that?
I don't really view my solo career as a career; it's more an extension of what I do as a songwriter and producer. Kanye is definitely an 'artist.' I'm an artist in a different type of way, because it's through so many people that I live. Because of "Holy Grail," I live. I'm a writer and that's more of the artist in me than The-Dream who is going to be performing tonight. It makes me feel good to share that Grammy with Bey. Not, "Oh, look what I got for myself!" The songwriter in me will always be first.
This summer I saw an amazing music documentary called "Twenty Feet From Stardom" about some of the greatest back-up singers in pop music -- who are pretty much anonymous. Some of the film tracks their failure to make it solo. Thinking about your solo work and the artist you've been around, what makes a star?
It has a lot to do with time. Different people peaking at a certain time become different types of stars. Beyonce's skill at 12, and coming out of a group called Destiny's Child is why she became a star. Mine is different because you didn't know me until I was 30. And blatant stardom is the person on the stage, but those people have stars they answer to. I'm a star to the stars, so it isn't like my light doesn't shine. I’ll get that call from that person you're watching on stage and dying to meet.
That's not even a cop out, that's how it is in my mind. I wrote "Birthday Cake" in Amsterdam on tour with Rih. I was there being that thing for her, and watching her close her shows with "Umbrella" so there's no way you can't tell me I'm a star, because look at what I did. What's important is how many stars I help make. I want my catalogue. That's that Puffy shit. That's why Puff's a star, because of his vision for what's missing. You can't say that person isn't needed. They're probably needed more than the artist.
"IV Play" dropped four months ago. What have you been working on?
I'm always working – even when I was doing that, I was writing other shit. I'm working on three albums of my own at the same time. One is kind of an indie album tied to a documentary I want to shoot, called "What Is Love." I'm trying to get Chris Martin from Coldplay on this album. I haven't asked him yet! I have to wait until I get the right song.
I think a lot of people have felt the darker effect of "1977" on the newest record. You were going through some frustrating things creatively and on a business-level that prompted you to release that album for free, and as Terius Nash. Did it change the way you write?
I just did a show where the guys and girls in the room were 50/50. That happens sometimes, and this girl walked up to me and said, 'You've got so many guy fans!' And the reason that happens is that I say things they're thinking but they can't express. From a very young age we're told to keep our shit in, which is ultimately what drives a guy crazy or even makes him numb in a certain way about how much love to give or how much attention to pay. [I believe] there is always a reason why people get to the points they get to. By being an emotional outlet in that type of way… I think that helped not just me, but a lot of people. And, it wasn't a commercial album at all. I just did it fucking around and waiting on the label. I didn't release it to make money, I released for real because I didn't want it to be documented as a mixtape.
I feel like this new culture kind of stole the word. I'm from Atlanta -- I know what mixtapes were. You'd go to the flea market and get a mixtape and it'd have different music on it from different people. It's DJs mixing into one song, then that rides out, and then you go to 2 Live Crew, and then that goes to DJ Magic Mike… A mixtape isn't an album full of brand new, untouched music. It's not sampled, so to call it a mixtape is utterly disrespectful to your own craft, I think. Just call it a free album! But that's just me, maybe I'm old school?