Rhythm and Blues

Photo: Angela Boatwright; Styling by Crystal Streets/B.Lynn Group

I t’s a late afternoon at the London hotel in midtown, and singer-songwriter-producer Terius Nash, a.k.a. The-Dream, a.k.a. the guy who put the “ ’Ella” in Rihanna’s “Umbrella” and articulated the frustrations of millions of Beyoncé-loving single ladies, is taking high tea in the hotel restaurant. He’s 31 years old, soft-faced, and dressed in a black V-neck T-shirt, jean shorts, and a black baseball cap emblazoned with the logo of the Atlanta Falcons, his hometown team. He butters a scone and samples the tea, but after a few polite sips, he switches it up and orders a Patrón and a Sprite. As he drinks, baffled power-lunchers make shark-circles around the table, staring at The-Dream, his shiny Rolex, and his even shinier iPad. Should I know this guy?

Though casual music fans might not recognize his name, they probably paid for his scones. The-Dream is among the top pop draftsmen of the last three years, right up there with self-branded superproducers like Dr. Luke and Diplo. With his partner, Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, he’s crafted more than 200 songs, including “Umbrella,” Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body,” and Justin Bieber’s “Baby”—all of them clingy, expansive, impossible-to-shake hits. The bill for each? Enough to make The-Dream and Tricky very rich men (it costs around $150,000 to get the two into the studio), though not household names. And that’s why The-Dream is here today.

He moved to Atlanta from Rockingham, North Carolina, when he was a few years old. After his mother died in 1992, he started writing songs; he hoped to create work as indelible as Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” or DeBarge’s “Rhythm of the Night,” but it took meeting Tricky (not to be confused with the British rapper), in 2002, to accomplish that. The pair shopped tracks to the likes of Madonna (“Me Against the Music”) before finally topping the charts with “Umbrella,” which was downloaded tens of millions of times—sometimes even legally. Like many of The-Dream’s biggest hits, it celebrates tough-cookie feminism. “I’ve always had a soft spot for women because of my mom,” he says. “Just their power. Man’s biggest enemy is a woman who has it in for them. I just like being around them, watching, soaking up the information, being cursed out, being put out.”

While The-Dream was peddling tunes, he was working on his own music. He released his first solo album, Love/Hate, in 2007, and his third, Love King, last week. An aurally lavish document of bedroom politics, Love King veers between potential hits with deft Top 40 hooks (the supple anthem “F.I.L.A.,” and the eighties-indebted “Yamaha”), as well as floridly intricate song suites loaded with electropop Easter eggs, demanding multiple listens. It’s these more ambitious exercises that drop the jaws of his most passionate fans—the sort of headphone-tripping, baby-making (though one hopes not at the same time) compositions that got his second album, 2009’s Love vs. Money, on The Village Voice’s and Rolling Stone’s year-end lists. “He’s one of the most creative and honest minds working in music today,” says collaborator T.I.

Still, solo infamy has eluded The-Dream: His previous albums have never sold much more than 500,000 copies, and his biggest single, the Kanye West–assisted “Walkin’ on the Moon”—an off-the-wall Thriller homage—hovered in the middle of the charts. On Love King’s “Panties to the Side,” he sings, “I’ll never be a pop star / I’m too raw,” and he might be right, which doesn’t mean he’s accepted it. When Love vs. Money wasn’t nominated for any 2009 Grammys, he lashed out on his Twitter account: “I helped change the sound, and my peers vote against me on purpose.”

The-Dream laughs when reminded of this—not at himself, for the peevish ranting, but because he still can’t believe the slight: “That was messed up, right?” Like his friend Kanye (the two are plotting an album together), he has a bristling confidence that can quickly turn to sulkiness when he thinks he’s being disrespected, even though he’s in great demand for his songwriting and having high-placed friends in the R&B community (Mary J. Blige is a prayer buddy). “There are certain people who respect me in the dark,” he says. “Some people who don’t know me are afraid to say, ‘What you doin’ is kind of incredible.’ ”

Part of the problem is that while his music is instantly accessible, The-Dream himself is a hard sell. Much like eighties-era Prince—another highly prolific, studio-obsessed artist with a penchant for female narratives—he doesn’t quite mesh with his chart contemporaries: He’s not as delicate as Maxwell (The-Dream’s songs are meant to get people on the floor), nor as theatrically nimble as Usher. And though at first listen he seems inordinately fond of fornication, he’s less interested in the lewd posturing of an R. Kelly than in patient seduction. He insists, in fact, that his songs aren’t preoccupied with sex. Even “Sex Intelligent” (a thumping slow jam in which he boasts, “My love gets it poppin’ like the Taliban”) is “more about knowing my partner when making love,” says The-Dream, who’s married to singer Christina Milian (his first marriage, to R&B singer Nivea, ended in 2007). “It’s more sensual than just, ‘Okay, bend over, then I’m out.’ Sex doesn’t have to be microwaved.”

The-Dream’s refusal to fully commit to any modern-R&B archetype—he’s too smart to convincingly play the horndog, yet too lascivious to be the softy lover-man—is what make his records so intoxicating but also difficult to market to the pop masses, who favor reductive personas and three-minute singles. “There’s no one making more interesting records,” notes Voice contributor Mikael Wood. “But I don’t know if ‘interesting’ is what people are after. His records take so long to unpack; he attracts a super-devoted audience that wants to put in the time.”

Love King is undoubtably a strong album—The-Dream’s best shot at connecting with a bigger audience. And maybe he’s coming around to the idea that he’ll never be as huge as he is in his own mind. “I’ll become something bigger than what I’ve been,” he says with near restraint. “It’s not about the albums sales or anything like that. People will know me more.”

As a waiter clears off the table, The-Dream gets a ping from his accountant. He’s just gotten the go-ahead to purchase some property in Buckhead, an upscale neighborhood in uptown Atlanta. “Been looking for a cigar bar,” he says. “Got my own little thing. I’m planning on getting old quickly.” And retiring, no doubt, to a place where everybody knows his name.

Rhythm and Blues