Robert Caplin for The New York Times
by Ken Capobianco
Chances are that even if you’ve paid scant attention to pop music over the past five years, you’ve probably found yourself singing a song written or produced by Terius Nash, a.k.a. The-Dream. In fact, The-Dream is arguably the most influential singer-songwriter-producer working in mainstream R&B today.
The 25-year-old Atlanta born artist has co-written some of the biggest smashes of recent years including Rihanna’s “Umbrella,” Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” and Mariah Carey’s “Touch My Body” and has become one of the most in-demand producers in the process. He's also turned into a successful solo artist in his own right as his first three records have been both critical and commercial hits.
The secret to his success so far has been his knack for creating indelible hooks. His calling card is his repetition of words, phrases or word fragments (recall the memorable sustained “ella” echo in “Umbrella”). In his own hit “Make-up Bag” he repeats the title 26 times during the course of the song for an irresistible earworm.
“There’s no real rocket science to it,” The-Dream says via cell phone on a tour bus headed to Cincinnati for an early gig in his current intimate theater tour, which stops at the Wilbur Theatre tonight.
“What I want to do is to create a conversation piece and something people remember. I want to make it repetitive enough but not use what I call 'thin thinking’ — the kind of thing anyone can do. A hook tells me what you are talking about and it doesn’t have to be a lot of words. It just has to stick with you and I think repetition is an effective way of making it work.”
Most of his production has been done alongside his partner, Tricky Stewart, as they have their fingerprints on songs by Chris Brown, Britney Spears, Diddy, Beyoncé, Mary J. Blige, and Usher as well as Justin Bieber’s multi-platinum “Baby,” which was written and produced by the duo.
Right now, though, The-Dream is focused on furthering his successful solo career as he preps for the release of his fourth CD, "Love IV MMXII" (Def Jam) in late spring. It follows 2007’s "Love Hate," 2009's "Love vs. Money," and 2010's "Love King." Full advance music wasn’t made available at press time, but the first single and title track "ROC” is a slinky sex-u-up jam, which doesn’t break any new ground, with its familiar Dream-y hook, alluring melody and insinuating keyboards.
“This new CD is to show you where things are now and it’s a different time for me. I’m not going to change things up too much. You know they say, 'If it ain’t broke you don’t fix it,’ so I’m not,” the good-natured artist says.
“The music is very close to my heart, though, and certain things that might be recognizable I’m going to escalate and take to a much higher plane. I know that people are going to appreciate what I do here because if you believe in your music people can tell it’s real.”
Judging by the re-appearance of "love" in the title, his subject matter is easy to discern.
“Of course it’s love, man because love rules the world,” he offers while laughing. The-Dream has been married twice including once to singer/dancer Christina Milian. “Everybody needs love and loves something. It’s the one intangible that connects us all so you know that’s what I’m going to go back to. I can’t think of a more important subject especially these days.”
Music was not the career The-Dream had in mind when he was growing up in Atlanta in the ‘80s. “Music was always a passion, but when I was a kid I didn’t see it as a viable career,” he claims. “I learned to play instruments and I’ve been in bands since I was 13, but I wanted to be an artist and I really wanted to design cars.
“That was going to be a career. If I lived in New York my thinking might have been
different, but we didn’t have any L.A. Reid or Babyface to find us. Once I saw the Atlanta
scene take off and the people around me succeed, then I thought that music could be my path and I just followed it.”
The singer-songwriter says that he understands some people’s complaints that too much modern R&B follows the same blueprint, and songs can all too often be diagrammed as a verse-chorus-hook-repeat followed by a 16-bar guest cameo by a guest superstar MC.
“I get that but that’s the pressure of the corporations. Radio is not going to play the slowly evolving, involving romantic love songs that I grew up on. I try to make records that have feeling and have a personal touch like the ones Michael (Jackson), Teddy Pendergrass and Prince made. But what I hear consistently is that corporate research says that’s not the kind of record radio is going to play.”
He takes a breath as he is getting quite animated: “R&B music takes longer for you to absorb. To write a melodic R&B song you have to get to that feeling and intimacy. It takes time to really feel. Hip-hop records are instant. They’re an immediate rush. When I work on a hip-hop record, I approach it differently because I know what works and attack it. It happens pretty rapidly. To me R&B should not have a formula because it comes from the heart and there’s no formula for that.”
With so many hits behind him and, no doubt, more than a few ahead, he's particularly excited about his collaboration with Pusha-T of the rap duo Clipse due later this year), The-Dream says he knows when he’s created an instant smash and gets a charge out of it.
“With `Single Ladies,’ we finished and knew that that was a hit. It had everything. There are some things that I think I’ve done that are ahead of their time and it will take years for people to really appreciate how good they are. Beyoncé’s "4" [for which he was very involved in the writing and production] is going to be like that. People liked it, but they didn’t love it. In a few years it’s going to be thought of as classic. Like I said, good R&B takes time to appreciate.”
The-Dream plays the Wilbur Theatre tonight at 9 p.m., 246 Tremont St. Tickets: $27. www.thewilburtheatre.com
About Sound Effects
ContributorsSarah Rodman is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.
James Reed is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.
Jonathan Perry is the Globe's Scene & Heard columnist, covering local music.
Michael Brodeur is the assistant arts editor for the Boston Globe, covering pop music, TV, and nightlife.
Julian Benbow is a staff writer at the Boston Globe, covering sports and music.
Katie McLeod is Boston.com's features editor.
Rachel Raczka is a producer for Lifestyle and Arts & Entertainment at Boston.com.
Emily Wright is an Arts & Entertainment producer at Boston.com.