If you’re the kind of person who treats pop music like the Plague, I’ve got news for you: You’re missing out. This March saw the release of one of the most ambitious and exhilarating albums of the year, and it’s quite defiantly pop-tastic. Certainly in its ingredients, The-Dream’s “Love Vs. Money” is no different from most other high-budget pop records. It’s filled with stuttered percussion, growling synths, and syncopated auto-tune vocals, as well as those Atlanta chants that have become a regular fixture of chart-toppers recently — you know, that slurred and drunken “ayyyy” that seems to make up the chorus of every rap single these days.
The difference with “Love Vs. Money” lies in its execution. The-Dream may not have the looks or even the vocal chops of your typical pop star, but the artistry of his contemporary pop technique is peerless. Sorry, Timbaland. Sorry, Pharrell. There’s a new kid on the block.
Well, not quite new. The-Dream does have a few big hits under his belt. In fact, though everyone likes to think that Timbaland is responsible for the sound of pop music in the late-2000s, we shouldn’t forget that two of the most ubiquitous songs of 2007 and 2008 were The-Dream’s handiwork. The ominous robo-pop of Rihanna’s “Umbrella”? That was him. The airy, whirring clatter of Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”? That was him, too.
But where both Timbaland and Pharrell have proved unable to translate their production skills into successful solo careers, The-Dream has outdone himself with “Love Vs. Money.” Neither “Single Ladies” nor “Umbrella,” and certainly not his spotty 2007 debut “Love/Hate,” hinted at the breadth of vision evident here.
Almost every track on the album is a masterpiece, detailed and intricate but never over-stuffed or claustrophobic. First single “Rockin’ that Shit” is the sonic equivalent of a lava lamp, gushing with marshmallow synths; “Walking on the Moon” is a delirious, day-glo spin on early Michael Jackson; and the title track sounds like it was recorded in a car factory, with The-Dream’s fragile vocals fluttering in between crashing, lumbering percussive hits.
As with The-Dream’s debut, two titans of R&B loom large over the proceedings: Prince and R. Kelly (both immensely talented, both bat-shit crazy). But where “Love/Hate” found imitation to be the sincerest form of flattery, this time around The-Dream synthesizes his influences into more exciting and original creations. “Nikki,” a song from his debut, was a virtual rewrite of Prince’s classic “Darling Nikki,” down to its damn name, and the same went for the airy groove of “Purple Kisses.” On his second album, The-Dream takes Prince’s alien, otherworldly style and brings it rocketing into the twenty-first century, laying eerie harmonies and vocal effects against high-tech beats.
R. Kelly’s influence is more openly acknowledged — particularly on “Kelly’s 12 Play,” in which The-Dream describes having sex to the sounds of Kelly’s breakthrough album. Ahem. Unsurprisingly, it’s a track that repeatedly teeters on the brink of absurdity (“clean the CD, check for scratches / get up on my mattress / now we doin’ it to Kelly’s ‘12 Play’”), but perhaps that’s appropriate considering Kelly’s rather kooky personal life. Thankfully, though, it’s not just Kelly’s taste for the absurd that The-Dream takes to heart. He’s also inherited Kelly’s vocal flair, spicing up his run-of-the-mill singing voice with an orgasmic array of hiccups, sighs and screeches.
And yet, The-Dream is by no means ruled by his influences: on “Fancy,” he leaves Kelly in the dust, transforming the R&B icon’s lascivious style into something far more accomplished. In fact, the song comes close to fulfilling the epic, theatrical vision that Kelly fell so short of with his “Trapped in the Closet” project. In every way that “Trapped in the Closet” is trite and repetitive, “Fancy” is mature and engrossing, starting soft, only to end six and a half minutes later amidst a blissful clatter of synths and drums.
I could describe every track in equal detail, but I won’t bore you — and in case you do pick up the album, I don’t want to reveal too much of the delectable ear candy in store for you. Suffice it to say, in its widescreen, multi-layered production style, “Love Vs. Money” is in many ways 2009’s “Thriller.” Think of the number of hooks crammed into a song like “Billie Jean” — guitar licks, synth riffs, and bass lines, let alone the vocals — and you start to get an idea of just how masterfully executed “Love Vs. Money” is. And like Quincy Jones’ work on “Thriller,” The-Dream’s luxurious soundscapes are clearly crafted to support and enhance his melodies, and not the other way around. In a world where studio trickery is often used to mask shoddy song writing, it’s a refreshing change of pace. Hopefully, pop’s other super-producers (cough, Timbaland, cough) will take note.
In the end, though, what’s best about “Love Vs. Money” is simple: It is an album, in every sense of the word. Unified in sound and flawlessly sequenced, it runs the gamut of tempos and moods, from the fun-loving head-rush of the first few songs to the simmering anger of its midsection, to the scandalously erotic bliss of its closing moments. You can leave the “skip” button well alone with this one. Unlike 99 percent of pop albums, “Love Vs. Money” begs to be listened to in one sitting. Each track segues into the next, literally as well as emotionally, and they don’t really work without each other. I can’t imagine the despairing “Right Side of My Brain” working half as well without the cathartic climax of “Fancy” coming right before it.
Sure, The-Dream’s lyrics may not be deep or thought provoking (sample: “I’m all up on you like a monster truck”), and the record’s aspirations towards concept album complexity do fall somewhat flat. But to me, it’s a concept album sonically, not lyrically, and The-Dream’s lyrical and even vocal shortcomings are more than made up for by his production skills. On “Love Vs. Money,” the ingredients may be the same, but the recipe is radically different. If you think indie rock and electronica are the only progressive genres these days, listen to this album and then we’ll talk.