The-Dream Talks Love After 'Lemonade,' Why He Deserves Legendary Status

Writer for Beyoncé, Rihanna, Kanye West and other stars tackles modern romance on his latest solo EP

The-Dream discusses the impact of Beyoncé's 'Lemonade' and the state of modern love following the release of his 'Love You to Death' EP. Credit: Miguel Starcevich

For Terius Nash, who writes, produces and records as The-Dream, it can be difficult to escape the long shadow of his past accomplishments. He's co-written modern standards like Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" along with undervalued confections like Electrik Red's "So Good." He's a regular presence on albums from Kanye West and Rihanna, and he's won four Grammys for his efforts behind the scenes.

The star caliber of these artists frequently ends up stealing the spotlight away from his solo releases. But his trio of Love albums, starting with 2007's Love Hate and wrapping up in 2010 with Love King, played a crucial role in drawing attention to a genre that was frequently neglected during the 2000s: Before The-Dream surfaced, R&B singers who embraced the sound of contemporary hip-hop rarely earned critical accolades. The first two entries in the trilogy also enjoyed some commercial success, both earning gold certifications and spawning hit singles.

But The-Dream still flies partially under the radar, even as he has helped define the parameters of modern pop. "Nobody's talking about the year that I'm having," he tells Rolling Stone. "I've got two Grammy nominations [for Kanye West's "Ultralight Beam"]. I'm on two of the biggest-selling albums this year. I put a film out [Genesis]. I'm getting ready to put an EP out. I was on a project with Solange which made history – siblings [each] having Number Ones. I think my years are so big overall that it gets lost. This is a career year for somebody else."

The-Dream recently released the Love You to Death EP, and he plans to put out another full-length next March. He spoke with Rolling Stone about the impacts of Beyoncé's Lemonade (he co-wrote "6 Inch"), the demise of the love song and the nature of modern relationships.

Is this EP connected to your previous trio of Love albums?
Those are about the hunt, trying to keep you happy. This is not about the hunt: It's about the relationship itself that you're in. It's a different chapter in the book where it's about, I can only make you happy if I feel happy, and if I feel good about being a man. Because if I don't, then what do you think you're gonna get out of it?

This is really inspired by the word "masculinity." I say to my girl all the time, "It's a lot to ask of men, 'Hey, understand me, understand what I'm going through.'" But you know what nobody else does? Takes the time to understand a man. Nobody's really picked apart the psychological effect that's happened with men not being able to work as much as they did when I was small. It's not about equal or not. It's about something did drastically change in the workforce in the kind of jobs that men do. If you say that this makes you a man if you do this, if you don't do it no more, then what are you? Nobody stopped to think that men are wondering that, or that they don't know, or that they would be lost? Whoever thought that the weakest part of life would be masculinity?

"Lemon Lean" is just about that: I'm not trying to compete with you, we've both got jobs to do, and we both have to feel a certain type of way. You want to feel like a woman, and I want to feel like a man. It's not gonna just be about you feeling like a woman and that's it. That's not what real women want anyway. They want you to be you; they just don't know exactly how we feel about things. Most of the time, men don't really express ourselves. That's a huge part of where I come in at, to kind of explain what that thing is.

It's just a conversation between men and women on this EP that I wanted to get out. After Lemonade, the sky is bluish gray, and everyone wants to talk about, how do you want tomorrow to look? Do you want it to be sunny, and [we'll] hold hands, and we'll skip down the block? Or do you want to continue to fight with me? I think that's what every guy is thinking, and I think a lot of women are thinking that too. B, that's my sister. She left a lot of questions in minds, which I don't think a man could ever pose. For everybody else that's with each other out here in the world, day in day out, fighting for their marriages and for their relationships and their family, that's not a show. It had a real effect, without giving the answers in the end to what we should do going forward.

So Lemonade changed the way people think about their relationships?
Yeah, definitely. I didn't want to dance around it. All the other guys can pretend like it didn't happen or they don't have to say anything. Maybe to bring it up is a mistake. But nobody had a problem talking about it when I wrote the record "Single Ladies," which is the opposite. I was the one that was writing the record to get you with that guy that's like, "I'm good, I can't do it [get married], I'm not doing it," because he didn't want to be in a place where he would get in trouble. I feel responsible.

How does Love You to Death's ode to Rihanna, "Rih-Flex," fit into this?
It's no different than a writer who writes for movies: I get these things from what's going around me. There's an idea that women are savages now, which I just don't believe. But we can't deny the impact that Rihanna has had on younger women that are like, "Oh, cool, I can do what I want to do – I ain't gotta have no feelings about this or about that." "Rih-Flex" chronicles something with me where I went through something with somebody and they just flexed on me like, "I'ma get with this guy that I used to get with, and what you thought we had was nothing, alright, bye." Very humbling, by the way. A girl can't do that! But of course they can.

All you're really doing, ultimately, is ruining the guys that you're going to want to marry later. Eventually the guys are going to figure it out. They're gonna say, "Why get married? What's the point? We're all savages." Right now, talking about love from a woman's standpoint isn't really that popular. So when it's not popular, you have people living it, but not really feeling it or meaning it. We don't have those songs – there aren't those voices, those Toni Braxton songs; that doesn't exist right now. We're not in that space. And who knows, maybe Trump will change that.

Trump is gonna bring back the love song?
Politics changes music most of the time. Ronald Reagan – you can kind of say that he made hip-hop what it was by the embargoes that he set. Certain things that he did created N.W.A in a way. Politics has always done that. Trump may change you feeling free as a guy and as a woman to go and come as you please and not really build anything to protect yourself, not have a home to go to after work. Those things change. There's a lot of us that haven't witnessed a war. You hear the older people talk about it; we haven't witnessed it. To have a thought that it could never happen would be crazy. You don't know what the future is. Those things drive you into the arms of other people. So we'll see.

Can we get back the love song without going to war?
I think unfortunately, things have to either look bad or be bad for love to be generated from it. It's shown through history. Right now, men aren't in protection mode. You know it and I know it. If you're a woman, you're gonna get with me tonight, you won't feel bad about it, and I won't feel like I need to stay. That's where we are. If something else was going on outside your window when you woke up every morning, then you'd think a little bit different about that.

When did the love songs you're talking about go away?
Everybody has too much shit to do. Love is like the sixth agenda on everyone's list. Most people say, "Love is only gonna get you hurt anyway." Life gets you hurt. Love didn't do it. Life does it. Constantly dragging you – that's what it does. We get over it when it's that. So get over it when you're in love. Nobody just quits life; don't quit your relationship. How many times has life done you wrong? Do you just quit? No, you take your ass outside, and you do that shit again. You wreck your car, you get it fixed, or you go buy another one. Cool, it's a car. Which means that you should have even more respect for a human being. So when y'all wreck y'all's shit, fix it.

Are you going to release a single from the EP?
There's not really a super single right now. Here in Atlanta, they've had "Lemon Lean" in rotation for maybe three months now. I just wanted to grassroots it in this Atlanta space that I've been in. I've been back for most of the year now, and I'm just trying to not do anything that doesn't start with the base of Atlanta. It's not my first choice to leave, but of course when I'm working on everybody else – whether it's Kanye or B or Jay – I have to leave here.

I miss that feeling that goes along with being here in the South. I hate when that happens; I have to come back and push the reset button. When you think about Love Hate [his 2007 debut], Love vs. Money [2009] – Love King [2010] was started here also – it's a certain type of feeling, and I think that has a lot to do with courting and trying to be a gentleman. I can't remember the last time my girl has opened her door for herself. That won't ever happen. That's something I learned here, and that's something that most people are unaccustomed to once you leave the South. Those certain little things – if they even matter anymore, who knows.

Do you pay attention to the reception of your solo singles?
You at least want people to hear it. A lot of things aren't in your control. It has a lot to do with new also; new defies old until they both get into the realm of what's classic and what's not. Some things just can't be appreciated immediately. It's like somebody asking me for Love Hate over and over and over again. It's like, Love Hate is Love Hate. Nobody's beat Love Hate. There's no contemporary artist that has a better record than Love Hate. And Love vs. Money may be the only record that's been at least even close.

It's not me bragging or being overzealous; it's the complete truth. There's no body of work that's been that. Which actually laid the foundation for what it even sounds like in the contemporary world. There was a Grammy made after I didn't get Grammy nominations for Love Hate and Love vs. Money; now there's Urban Contemporary. The reason why that's an actual slot on the Grammy ballot is because of those records. They didn't know where to put 'em. They had no idea. It's one of those things: Nobody can really enjoy you, Brett Favre, until you retire. Well, I'm not gonna retire, so fuck out of here. I'll just be Brett Favre, and it'll just be what it is. You can't take away what's being done. It's being written down, so when they tally it all up …

L.A. Reid one called you "one of the great undiscovered talents of our time" – do you think that's still true?
Of course. He wasn't lying when he said that. He knows it. Or when Jay Z calls me the secret weapon. They know it. I know exactly who I am. If there's no legend made about The-Dream right now, it's not that there won't ever be. You just have to wait your time.

Do you feel like you can see your influence on other artists?
My influence is everywhere. You know when you're touching people. You know when you're getting certain phone calls. Bryson Tiller has reached out to me to ask my questions about other things, not just music, which lets me know that he's been touched. Even down to the youngest new guy, Lil Yachty, hitting me saying, "Yo, let's do a record together." You can't fool the ones. They're not fooled. They're not fooled by the non-storytelling, or the ones not really soliciting this legend of what's happening for real, in real life.

Everything new is new. But a new Honda will never be better than a '98 Benz. Sorry, I love you Honda, but it's not happening. A Benz is a Benz. I try to do things how I feel: I feel like a Benz, I feel like a Rolex, I feel like these things that are made great and never die. So that's how I carry my music. And eventually people stumble on to you. Mercedes is probably as big as it's ever been. Doesn't mean they wasn't that good in 1988. You gotta give the legend time enough to catch up.