Over the past three years, Terius "The-Dream" Nash has eked out a niche as R&B's new sultan of sleaze, very nearly edging out R. Kelly in terms of his dogged determination to making sex the driving force and primary inspiration behind his music. The-Dream's "Love" trilogy, comprising his debut album, Love Hate, follow-up, Love vs. Money, and the just released Love King, deals almost exclusively with sexual prowess and sexual impropriety and the positive and negative repercussions of both. But where Love Hate drafted the prototype for The-Dream's sound and Love vs. Money perhaps perfected it, Love King finds the talented singer, songwriter and producer losing steam.
Love King's problems start straight away with the opener and title track. With its plunking, two-chord piano riff and laundry list of girls name-checked in the verses, "Love King" is a near complete retread of The-Dream's 2007 debut single, "Shawty Is A 10." Later, "F.I.L.A." nicks the flatulent trumpet fanfares of Love vs. Money's "Rockin That Thing" almost wholesale. "Turnt Out" lands dangerously close to the high register hijinx of "Falsetto." "Yamaha" goes for the same shameless Prince homage that he he mined for Love Hate's "Fast Car." A musical innovator like The-Dream really shouldn't be pinching hooks off of old hits this early in his career.
While much of Love King finds The-Dream flying in a holding pattern in search of direction, the album does hold some promise. Even when he's treading water, The-Dream shows flashes of brilliant songwriting and state-of-the-art production. The down-tempo sonics of "Sex Intelligent" are a definite career highlight, and the boast at the heart of the song's chorus ("I make every nigga irrelevant/ I'm sex intelligent") represents The-Dream at his comedic, sex-crazed finest. Its only rival occurs during the very thinly veiled kiss-off "Florida University," whose chorus is a chant of the titular school's initials, when The-Dream croons "What rhymes with 'asshole'?/ 'Asshole!.'" Another album highlight is the loosely story-based three-song suite "Yamaha," "Nikki 2," and "Abyss," where a bit of seemingly harmless fun quickly turns ugly. The-Dream's knack for forlorn emotional theatrics has always been his secret weapon. Late in the album, the trance-influenced "Panties to the Side" presents itself as a possible new direction.
The-Dream has threatened in recent interviews to make Love King his last album. His helium-voiced R. Kelly-meets-Prince shtick is a little worn, but retirement seems like a copout. What he really needs are some new ideas and some fresh blood. As it stands, Love King's production team -- The-Dream, Christoper "Tricky" Stewart and Los Da Mystro -- is quickly turning into a gang of old college buddies; every time they get together, they're up to the same old tricks. As self-referencial and derivative as it is at times, Love King is a good album and a worthy addition to The-Dream's sordid canon. Third albums often represent the moment where an artist's sound either gels or falls apart. With Love King, The-Dream has narrowly skirted an artistic rut by staunchly holding his ground. But he can't keep making the exact same album for much longer.
Until the Dream changes his mind, Love King is the end of the line for him, as far as solo releases go. Originally slated to be a collaboration with Kanye West, if Love King really is the Dream's last album it is the culmination of a kind of "Love" trilogy, following Love/Hate and Love vs. Money. Guess we know where The Dream's thematic obsession lies, possibly along with the desire to establish himself as some kind of summit as far as his particular brand of R&B-tronica is concerned.
The only possible worry is that after writing a ton of material for Mariah Carey, Christina Milian, Brandy, and Diddy, of all people, will The Dream have enough brilliance left in his pen/keyboard to make an album that's worth living up to the excellent releases he's already put out? The only thing to do is to hope that The Dream wouldn't let himself go out (or rather, wake up) like that.