*** (out of four)
The-Dream's appropriately titled fourth album, “IV Play,” opens with a song called “High Art,” a title that's almost aggressively ill-fitting. The song purposefully pokes fun at stuffy ideas of art with its chorus about drugs and sex, but it's also one of the more generic entries in The-Dream's catalog, featuring a Jay-Z verse that imitates Big Sean's flow and sounds like the kind of stilted R&B song rappers release as their album's third single. Coming from The-Dream, an artist who frequently manages to turn pop music into high art, it's a disappointing departure.
“IV Play” finds The-Dream in a similarly straightforward mode throughout, although generally to greater success. While his past albums felt like auteur-driven works with few guests--containing deeply emotional themes that would slowly unveil their brilliance over several minutes--“IV Play” is almost crowded. And as its fantastic, glittering title track suggests doing in the bedroom, it tends to cut to the chase.
Thus, we get a raunchy, insanely catchy ode to the female anatomy in the unprintably titled Pusha T and Big Sean feature but also the sagging, halting “Turnt,” which seems to have been made partly to flaunt The-Dream’s willingness to squander the privilege of extremely coveted guests like Beyonce and 2 Chainz because he can (although 2 Chainz's claim he'd drink a girl's bathwater almost redeems the whole thing).
When left to his own devices, The-Dream can fall victim to bloat, as on “Holy Love” and “Loving You/Crazy,” or cliché, as when he revisits the theme he previously explored on Ciara's “Ride” with “Equestrian.” There's no explanation as to why the four great promotional singles released in 2012 – “Roc,” “Kill the Lights,” “Body Work/[Bleep] Your Brains Out,” “Dope Bitch” – didn't make the album while some of these lesser songs did.
Nonetheless, The-Dream is one of the best songwriters working, and even his worst moments are well-executed and flawlessly produced. His best ones are flat out incredible, most notably on the lust-not-love, MJ-referencing ballad “Michael,” the aforementioned “IV Play,” radio dismissal “Slow It Down” and “Too Early,” a wildly inventive collaboration with Gary Clark Jr. that mixes auto-tuned and screwed-down vocals over blues guitar licks.
The-Dream deservedly feels chronically underappreciated – there's hardly a more fitting metaphor for his career than the fact that his most recent Grammy win was marred by Jay-Z making fun of his hat – and this album may lack the broad appeal that would solve that. However, he's one of R&B and pop music's most original, exciting figures, and if his fourth outing isn't always high art, it's still not art to be overlooked.
Kyle Kramer is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic
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