The-Dream has been channeling R. Kelly to varying degrees his whole career. It’s never been full-on imitation, more like tasteful (or because it’s R. Kelly, sometimes tasteless) homage. From dedicating the closing song on Love vs. Money – his second and arguably best album – to Kelly’s 12 Play, to sharing his predecessor’s penchant for amusingly blunt songwriting, the connection has always been noticeable, if not omnipresent.
When The-Dream retitled his fifth solo album IV Play, it seemed like yet another overt tip of the cap. But any attempt to peg the album in singular terms is folly. It’s been two full years since Dream started promoting the project and you can’t help but think it’s gone through several incarnations since. Piece by piece, it’s not easy to quibble with. Taken as a whole, it lacks the craftsmanship that has characterized Dream’s solo career to this point.
IV Play shares a few parallels with Kellz’ early ’90s classic, to be sure. The synth-washed title track, a clear highlight, recalls some of Kelly’s best straight-to-business romps (and makes sense of Dream’s decision to break away from the Love-themed trilogy). The album also similarly incorporates a heavy dose of Hip-Hop influence. Where IV Play breaks away is in the sheer coarseness of its southern rap sounds – even Beyoncé gets downright raunchy on the low-rumbling “Turnt” with 2 Chainz – which feels more firmly rooted to its DNA. Paired with more 90s-inspired, classically R&B tracks, it has the effect of robbing the album of any natural flow or cohesion.
Taking cues from the forthright and entertainingly bitter 1977, some of the best songs on IV Play are among the album’s most personal. Linking up with Gary Clark Jr., “Too Early” finds The-Dream committing to the song’s melancholy blues rock, altering his delivery to a wounded crawl. On “Y’all” – the best of the Deluxe Edition bonus tracks – he even manages to turn an Auto-Tuned mix of vulnerability and egotism into one of the more endearing tracks on the album (“If this ain’t the realest shit I’ve ever wrote / when I start to sing, I pray to God, make me choke”).
The-Dream still knows his way around an infectious pop song (“Slow It Down”), but there’s a certain je ne sais quoi missing from IV Play that’s difficult to pin down. Some have chalked it up to the absence of former writing and production partner Tricky Stewart, but The-Dream’s accomplished and mostly self-produced third LP Love King seems to fly in the face of that argument. It may be as simple as the countless delays suffered by the album – the many stop-and-starts in the marketing cycle meant that strong early records like “Body Work / F*ck My Brains Out,” “Kill the Lights,” and “ROC” all ended up on the cutting room floor. So we’re left with a pretty good Dream album, unable to shake the feeling that at one point we might have gotten a great one.
Label — Radio Killa, Def Jam | Producers — The-Dream, Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, Carlos McKinney