It's been a year since the-Dream first previewed his album, IV Play MMXII, an event thrown together as if for the hell of it: at the time, no release date had been set. There was a song with Gucci Mane, another with Mary J. Blige, one called "Loving You." Months went by with no public progress. In December, a second listening session showed a white board with six of the original nine songs gone, replaced by "Pussy!," "Thirsty Whore" and "Psycho." He'd gone from the-Dream to Terius Nash, warm winds to storm clouds. The project's title hadn't changed; everything else had.
Yesterday, noting the "final tracklist, but not the final sequence," the-Dream once again hit the space bar, this time on the top floor of New York's Jungle City studios. A small crowd joined him, over two sessions maybe 30 people in all, including Timbaland. Wearing a BBC hoodie and Jordans, a Louis Vuitton briefcase next to him, the-Dream seemed friendly, quick to shake hands and small-talk, but still a bit unsettled: When the room would go quiet between songs, he'd scroll through his laptop screen and beatbox. While he didn't play it, the-Dream mentioned that "Equestrian," a song with Big Sean that's been kicking around for a while, would also be on the album. At the end, he got up and shook more hands, a wide smile, seemingly relieved to put this out there.
"IV Play": Soft-spoken and polite in person, the-Dream opens IV Play matter-of-factly: "I could give a fuck about the foreplay, I want it now/I'm talking straight sex, stop fucking around." It's not demanding or abusive; he sings with ellipses, not exclamation points. If anything, he sounds delicate even when attempting rough: a British accent can make the dumbest words sound refined, and The-Dream can always turn dishrags into flowers. Sonically, it sounds like Jodeci, "Splackavellie" and Roger Troutman in a Cadillac Eldorado, which is to say it sounds great.
"Fi (Fire)": When introducing this, the-Dream said, "Fire's in parentheses, because that would be the non-ghetto title. Beyoncé's on this." She sounds soft, airy, as if from a hallucination: "I've never been high, but tonight I might try it. I've been such a good girl, but tonight I might try it." She name-checks D'usse cognac, obviously, and says "I'm so trill" and casually mentions "boppers." All right, we get it, you're from Houston, Bey. Dream runs his vocals through every ProTools filter, as if in a carwash, first through A$AP and then Nineties effects – up, down, red fish, blue fish, one fish, two fish. And, yes, in the middle of everything, there's marimba.
"Where Have You Been": In the studio, the-Dream said in a sing-song voice, " . . . with Kelly Rowland. I got Destiny's Child on my album!" (Note: Michelle Williams is not on the album.) It's reminiscent of an Anita Baker and Peabo Bryson ballad, with fluffy shoulders and cringing faces and heaving, lots of heaving, where each word is said between breaths. It's like a hug, a couples therapy session where both parties are saying the exact same thing. The song, like Drake's "Started from the Bottom," feels like eating in a rotating restaurant. I had it stuck in my head for the rest of the day.
"Too Early in the Morning": It sounds bluesy, woozy and dirty, and it's not even what you think it's about: fighting after waking up. He sounds like Prince. "I used to love to undress you, now I don't never pay you no mind." There's a slow build, string plucks; "ahh's" build over one another in the background. It sounds foreboding, like something bad is happening. Pitching down his vocals, as he does so often now, he chants, "Too early in the morning to break up and then make out."
"Michael": A slow-burner mid-way through, the-Dream says that "she makes me sing like Michael" when "I make her kiss on it, I make her lick on it, put that dick . . . " and on and on. (It's a strange reference, since no one was more desexualized than MJ, but regardless.) Dream doesn't really sing like Michael Jackson throughout, but the song opens with finger-snaps, so that seems about right. Notably, the hook goes, "Fuck that other n****, I just wanna fuck you over the weekend," so you can expect some angry tweets from a guy in Toronto.
"High Art": The-Dream said, "This features Jay, but I don't have Jay's vocals." The chorus? "I make love to my girl and I get high with my n****s," which seems like a fun life. He rhymes "burn up" with "turn up," "2 Live Crew" with "too high crew." The beat is one that Waka Flocka would be more-than-appropriate on; over fluttering chirps and bang-o-ranging, there are several moments I almost yell "Squad!" Dream loves to compare sex to drugs – this seems like the nth degree of that. Throughout the playback, Dream lurched his neck, shaking his head.
"Self-Conscious": "It's featuring no one," he said, laughing. The song feels as if shot in slo-mo, a black-and-white-toned beach party as imagined by Herb Ritts, with a button-up shirt hanging loose in the wind. On the hook, he screams, "You don't have to be self-conscious!," probably not helping whoever is being told that.
"Divine": "This has a vocal from Mary [J. Blige]," he says, tapping his keyboard. "I don't know if you'd really call it a vocal, but she's my friend." (She does some somersaults deep in the background.) There are some violins laying in piano beds, interrupted by this sawing, these scratches. He name-checks a morning spent over "coffee and New York Times." It's dark, as if sung through squinted eyes: "You may not know this place, I've been here before." It's a glitchy beat, sounding like it's been run through the Matrix.
"Love": It opens with Jay-Z saying, "I think I'm the American Dream. Not the singer. Forget the reference," from an Associated Press interview from last year. Dream scats for a minute, over violin stabs, a slowly driving beat. He sounds cold: "I sacrificed everything yet I'm still praying for love." This is the sound of dark hallways and closing doors, rattling explosions, the system powering down. "They're trying to limit my creativity" he says. Yikes. Playing with expectations with that title, Dream.
"New Orleans": "How can I love this bitch and at the same time scream fuck this bitch, and at the same time fuck this bitch, and at the same time . . . " You get the idea. It sounds like boulders are being shifted in the background. It's the "Florida University" of this project, far more upbeat (in tone) than expected. Oh, and by the way, New Orleans is used here as an object, blunt and hard, as in "put that New Orleans on her."