The Dream Is Real
He wrote ‘Umbrella’ for Rihanna and ‘Single Ladies’ for BeyoncÃ©. But with a great new album, the man behind the hits wants to be a superstar himself. Can he pull it off?
It’s the middle of the second quarter when the-Dream struts into Philadelphia’s Wachovia Center, where the 76ers are beating the Orlando Magic by six. His seats, at the end of the Sixers’ bench, put him thigh to thigh with sweaty, six-foot-11-inch starting centre Sam Dalembert, who gives Dream five. Sixers franchise star Andre Iguodala glances over and nearly sings “Radio killa!” ”“ Dream’s nickname ”“ then says, “”…’Preciate your music, man.” Coolly, Dream thanks him, as if mid-game props from NBA players are an everyday thing. Meanwhile, two teenage girls with furrowed brows are struggling to figure out who he is. Such is the world of the-Dream, a superstar as an R&B songwriter and producer who is still hoping to break big as an artist. “I’m definitely more famous with anybody in football, basketball, baseball, the industry, movies,” he says, eyes hidden behind Magoo-ish Crooks & Castles sunglasses. “All those people know me.”
When Dwight Howard checks into the game, Dream looks at his beautiful stylist and points to Howard’s black Adidas. “Them shits is crazy!” he says. She takes note, thinking of how to work them into his look, which combines country-club-ready preppy tailoring with flashy European-designer pieces and oversize baseball caps that hide half of his slightly doughy face. With two minutes to go in the game, Dream heads out to a waiting limo that will take him back to the Ritz-Carlton to prepare for a late-night club gig. “The game’s not decided,” he says. “But what is decided is there’s gonna be traffic outside.”
The 30-year-old Atlanta native, born Terius Nash, is dominating pop and R&B radio with an incredible run of hits. His songwriting credits include Rihanna’s ”˜Umbrella,’ Mariah Carey’s ”˜Touch My Body,’ BeyoncÃ©’s ”˜Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),’ Mary J Blige’s ”˜Just Fine’ and the Britney-Madonna duet ”˜Me Against the Music.’ He’s some kind of musical savant ”“ not just because he plays piano and most brass instruments but because he writes songs so fast it defies belief. ”˜Umbrella,’ 2007’s most culture-dominating smash, took just 15 minutes. Last year’s equivalent, ”˜Single Ladies,’ took 20. “He has an amazing gift,” says Antonio “LA” Reid, chairman of Dream’s label, Island Def Jam. “He was here in the office a couple of days ago. There was a track playing down the hall from a producer who was visiting one of our A&R guys. Dream heard the track, stood in the door and wrote a song to the track and walked out and got on the elevator. And the thing he wrote was amazing. He’s just one of the most gifted writers I’ve ever met.”
Dream also has lots of ideas about what makes a song a hit, the most central being that hit songs are built on hit subjects. “Whatever is good to talk about is usually the hit song to write,” he says. “With ”˜Umbrella,’ when you break it down, it’s about being taken care of ”“ shield me. And in a time of war, that’s a hit subject. They don’t even know that’s what they’re psychologically feeling.” On his new Love vs Money, Dream takes a more personal approach, dealing with the conflict between materialism and romance that he says derailed his marriage to the R&B singer Nivea ”“ with whom he has a three-year-old daughter.
On the disc, Dream croons like a sweeter R Kelly over glossy, state-of-the-art tracks from his producing partner, Chris “Tricky” Stewart. His 2007 debut, Love/Hate, sold 537,000 copies, and he’s doing everything he can to make his new one ”“ which features guest spots from Kanye West (”˜Walkin’ on the Moon’) and Mariah Carey (”˜My Love’) ”“ even bigger. “I figured out the sophomore jinx,” he says. “That’s when you try to really give ’em what you didn’t give ’em the first time. So I didn’t do that. I gave ’em what I gave ’em the first time, and I put a cape on it. I just made it a little bit better. I just sprinkled some crack on it.” Adds Reid, “He’s not a rapper, but he’s making records that have hip-hop appeal. He’s the best non-rapping rapper in the world.”
Dream is following a trail blazed by Kanye, who went from producing tracks to becoming one of the few recent superstars the ailing music industry has produced. Even though they’ve met only a few times, Dream sees Kanye as a big brother of sorts. His ringtone is Kanye’s ”˜Love Lockdown,’ and there’s been talk of a Dream-Kanye collaboration album that Dream says would be called Galaxy. “Like, the greatest in the galaxy,” he says.
Like Kanye, with whom he shares a record label, the-Dream is confident to the point of being brash. But also like Kanye, he has a vulnerable side that might be traced to a nerdy, music-obsessed childhood and a close relationship with his mother, who died of cancer when he was 13. Dream’s biggest hits have been sung by black female megastars ”“ BeyoncÃ©, Mariah, Rihanna, Mary ”“ and he seems to have a unique gift for understanding what’s going on inside their heads. “[Losing my mother] turned on a certain appreciation for women in general that’s in my music now,” he says. “I think that I’m real sensitive when it comes to women and the emotional part of it. I try to write and be very respectful of women because, at the end of the day, they are the most unappreciated. They don’t appreciate themselves.”
Dream used to have a picture of a private plane as his screen saver to motivate himself. Now, with a catalogue of hit songs he estimates as worth some $27 million, he can afford to fly in private jets. (Because he owns the publishing rights, Dream says he often makes more money off his songs than their singers do. ”˜Umbrella’ and ”˜Single Ladies,’ for instance, brought in a combined $10 million.) He has a black Bentley Arnage, a Range Rover, an SL 63 Mercedes AMG and a Ford F150 pickup truck. He’s also got a six-bedroom house in Atlanta’s posh Buckhead district, a place in Beverly Hills and a serious shopping problem. “Yo, Dream is good for the economy,” Tricky says. “He loves to shop, he loves clothes and shoes and accessories.” Adds Dream, “I can go to Louis Vuitton and spend $10,000, but once I get back to the studio it’s on. Every time I spend a dollar, I gotta think of a way to replace it. I’d love to be on the beach spending my ”˜Umbrella’ money, but I love being an artist. Besides, writers can only do a certain thing. Writers don’t sell clothing and buy stadiums and buy the Cleveland Cavaliers.”
Just a few years ago, Dream was just another aspiring R&B singer in a town full of them. Growing up in Atlanta, Dream was a band geek, learning to read music and play all the brass instruments and piano. He travelled to New York to march in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in the sixth grade and was a drum major by high school. “In the South, the drum major is the guy who marches out to the 50-yard line and does that thing, dancing in front of a stadium full of people,” he says. “I was already an artist before I was an artist.” He believes his musical education now gives him a key advantage. “I’m beating everybody just based off me being in a certain place since third grade,” he says. “I have 20 years of musical experience on you, and there’s nothing that you could really do about it.”
Before he quit working to make music full time, Dream had a series of odd jobs ”“ at Six Flags, at the fast-food chain Checkers, as a collections agent. Dream’s father was never part of his life ”“ he’s seen him just twice ”“ and after his mother died, he moved in with his grandfather. “He was a hard worker,” Dream says. “Cement mason. Probably worked on half of the buildings in Atlanta. He taught me to always be a gentleman.” Before his grandfather died in 1997, his grandfather’s brother gave Dream the idea for the name he’d adopt when his career finally took off: “He had a brief conversation with me, and he said you need to become the dream of the family. That stuck in my head.”
Around 2002, Dream, who was singing as a member of a local R&B harmony group called Guess Who, met Tricky Stewart through Tricky’s brother. Tricky had been producing records for acts including Mya and Blu Cantrell since 1992 and knew Reid, then the head of LaFace Records. But the song that changed their tax brackets was ”˜Umbrella.’ “I sung that record all the way down, one try,” Dream says. “With the exception of certain words here and there.” He doesn’t write with pen and paper (“I feel like paper traps you”), instead vibing a song into life as he sings along to the track. Tricky mikes the entire studio so that Dream doesn’t have to go into the vocal booth. “The main thing is being ready to capture whatever the idea is at that time,” Tricky says. (For the most part, Tricky handles the music, and Dream writes the lyrics, although Dream often devises melodies or beats and sometimes sits at a piano to write music.)
Dream knew ”˜Umbrella’ ”“ which was actually written for Britney Spears ”“ was a hit the night he and Tricky banged it out in their Atlanta studio. “She never heard it,” Dream says. “Politics.” Mariah Carey says she loves working with him. “Dream writes and creates at an incredibly swift pace without sacrificing quality,” she says. “It’s funny, because I can spend 10 minutes agonising over a word, and I know it annoys him because he likes to use the first thing that comes out of my mouth. I feel like he hears the finished product in his head from the inception of the song.”
Having written for Chris Brown and Rihanna, Dream considers them both friends. “When I think about them, all I can think about is young,” he says. “I don’t know. He said self-defence. So you gotta wait to see what happened.” Would Dream write a song for Brown now after what happened with the woman he calls his little sister? “Definitely,” he says. “But there would have to be something that came out that changes what we see and what we think of this right now. Everybody would have to have an epiphany.”
After swinging by his hotel to change, Dream heads to a club in nearby Wilmington, Delaware. With snow falling outside and nearly 2,000 fans waiting for his four-song set, he takes the stage holding a custom microphone with the words love and money BeDazzled on it. He’s a natural ham, but the audience is enthralled, singing along with every word, cameras and cellphones in the air. By 2:45, he’s heading to a small airport in New Castle, Delaware, to board a seven-seat Beechjet 400A for a flight to Atlanta. He’ll be in his floor seats when the Hawks take on the Cavs later that night. But on the way to the airport, Dream reveals that he didn’t get paid for the show. So why’s a rich dude with a jet waiting doing a free gig on a Sunday morning in Delaware? “They’ll remember who came through when they didn’t have to,” he says. “Besides, the plane ain’t leavin’ without me.”
Anatomy of a radio killer: a guide to the-Dream’s biggest, hookiest hit singles
By Jody Rosen
The power ballad that established the-Dream as a Gen-Y Smokey Robinson hitches a gigantic hook to a heart-tugging shelter-from-the-storm metaphor, and the 21st century’s most indelible nonsense syllables: ella, ella!/Eh, eh!
Mary J Blige, 2007
Dream’s catchiest club jam is a buoyant self-esteem anthem (“I like what I see”¦ walking past the mirror”) awash in a disco-era mirror-ball glow.
Another enormously touching ballad about relationship travails and emotional weather systems. ”˜Umbrella’ was no fluke: Dream can do emotional nuance as well as he does sex talk.
”˜Touch My Body’
Mariah Carey, 2008
This slinky Number One hit has one of Dream’s funniest lyrics ”“ alternately cheeky (“They be all up in my business/Like a Wendy interview”) and ribald (“I best not catch this flick
”˜Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)’
The exuberantly funky single that launched a zillion YouTube tributes features a fiendishly ear-wormy tune and a lyric that distils B’s romance-finance calculus to a simple message: one diamond ring, please.
”˜Rockin’ That Thang’
The lead single from his new Love vs Hate is classic Dream: a peak-period Prince synthesiser line, a swaying singsong hook and lyrics that don’t skimp on the details: “She under my shirt/I’m under her bra.”