What is success? I’m sure Google can supply its own blasé explanation, but in an age where boundaries of race, class, and culture are becoming increasing indefinable, the goalposts of success have also drifted into a twilight zone whose borders shift as often as our expectations of what is possible these days. Thanks in equal part to an increasingly competitive media landscape and the rising ubiquity of social media, visibility and success have practically become synonymous. However, as anyone working the in the higher echelons of any industry knows, it’s often the people with the lowest profile who hold the real keys to the kingdom.
Such is the case with seminal R&B act The-Dream. While by no means an unknown, after thumbing through even a short list of his production and writing credits, he has undeniably become more famous as a power-behind-the-throne figure than as a musician in his own right. Although comparisons to the music moguls of yore hold water on first diving into his output, unlike them, The-Dream shares more as an artist and culture driver with the éminence grise of politics, who conduct themselves concurrently as advisors, operators, and fabricators of ideas whose fates are intrinsically intertwined with how their vision of the landscape manifests itself in actuality.
When The-Dream (real name Terius Nash) came on the scene in the mid-90s, the status of R&B within music circles was ascendant; falling between the apex of the New Jack Swing era and the cultural dominance of Usher though, the movement ironically lacked a figurehead to guide the genre to new heights. With his distinct blend of sensual lyricism and arena-mindful sensibilities, The-Dream not only filled the void, but also managed to disseminate his ethos into pop music to the extent that it’s hard to remember a world before his aesthetic colored landscape. All while though, The-Dream has remained humble about his place in the industry, even letting the Twitter-ready quote “I’m not a king, ‘cause I don’t want to be,” drop unenthusiastically before diving back into the thick of his set.
However, this attitude of grace despite immense success was by no means isolated to him. An aura of it imbued the entire show, extending all the way from the front of house to the wings of the stage. From the moment I walked in I felt underdressed; not because people were decked out to the nines, but because people committed vigorously to their look, yet brushed off any acknowledgement that they were dressed for a special occasion (particular highlights included a couple wearing matching Versace sweat suits and gold earrings alongside enough Makobi, Champion, and Supreme street wear to make you think that every store on Fairfax was shuttered due to lack of stock in the audience’s wake).
However, it was when the music actually started when the structure of the night began to reveal itself. Most people would call the first part of a show the opening or warm up act, but since things were happening within spitting distance of Valentine’s Day, foreplay may be the better word in this instance. The DJ was quick to recognize the crowd’s “erogenous zones,” playing a steady stream of R&B hits past and present that gradually amped up the intensity. After about forty minutes, with a willing and able audience on deck, the DJ announced that The-Dream had arrived and began playing his prime cut productions, the concert equivalent of sticking in a finger or two. With each song, the crowd’s cheers of approval grew louder; and as if anticipating that the collective excitement was at its apogee, The-Dream materialized from out of the wings and launched into a few tracks off his latest mixtape, penetrating our minds and making everyone in the crowd feel like we’d crossed a barrier into a world where everything up to this point was worth the wait.
From the word “go,” The-Dream made it straightforward what his goal was: to fuck, sing about fucking, and inspire future generations to fuck in the hope of creating lasting world peace. And in his role as Corporal of the corporal that night, he made clear his efforts to break down the barriers both tangible and intangible that keep us mere mortals from descending into a hedonistic frenzy during our normal lives. So strong was his devotion in fact, that when a woman screamed out that she knew every word to his discography, he chastised her because, in his own words, “I make music for people to fuck to.” Talking to almost any songwriter, regardless of their style or commercial appeal, this would be a statement that is so self-effacing that it would border on self-sabotage. However, with The-Dream, this felt less like a self-deprecating cry for attention (cough cough… Kanye), than a forthright remark on his musical outlook. After all, songs ranging from “Despacito” to “Gangnam Style” are global hits, but when people remember them decades from now, will it really be for their lyrics?
This was one of the many questions that The-Dream’s show at The Fonda forced me to contemplate last week. While it may not have been a show on the scale of some of the acts that The-Dream has helped elevate to the heights of popular consciousness over the years, the vibe was unmistakable, the crowd was enthusiastic, and the performance itself soared; and knowing what I know after seeing him live, I have no doubt that this is exactly how The-Dream perceives success.
Words by: Robert Cohen
Photos by: Dillon Vaughn