The-Dream holds court with his exhilarating third album, Love King, in part because the paisley overtones, while still unmistakably crucial, have mutated into their own virulent strain of neo-sensualism. (Not to be mistaken for Ne-Yo-sensualism. Unlike the "Closer" crooner, The-Dream could still hurt you.) While cheap comparisons do little service to either party, singer-songwriter-producer Terius Nash's debt to Prince keeps blossoming in unexpected ways, far beyond the surface resemblance the detail work of "Yamaha" has to the Purple One's "Little Red Corvette." The intelligence of his production (not limited to but including two "versions" of "Sex Intelligent"), the sometimes-janky/sometimes-brilliant wordplay, the complexity of his eroticism all emerge from Love King in holistic fashion. Here is The-Dream touching down in the same way Prince did with 1999.
Like that sprawling double album, Love King's journey through the secret life of ass dares to meander, to free associate between tracks, to show just how a little can go a long way. Eschewing radio-friendly running times, the songs finesse layers upon layers of R&B hooks from what initially seem to be simple singsongs. They're so easy to pick apart you hardly notice they're as stuffed as a latter-day Basement Jaxx track. His tracks skirt the line, like so many of the best pop tracks, separating a lack of effort and effortless perfection. It's exactly the trick he and cohort Tricky Stewart would've pulled off with Mariah Carey's underrated Memoirs of an Imperfect Angel had they also remembered that Carey is, among other ignoble things, a dance-floor diva who needs a few dance-floor monsters mixed in with the corn-syrup ballads.
Part of that simplicity comes from the flawless sheen each of his synth-stabby tracks boast. Their obsessive-compulsive cleanliness—an almost total lack of analog instruments, straightforward rhythms, snaps and drones instead of drum kicks—parallels Prince's stripped-down naked funk. Both make minimalism expansive. Like the long string of songs on 1999 that pushed well beyond the four-, five-, and six-minute mark (foremost "Let's Pretend We're Married," which subtly jackhammers listeners for seven-and-a-half minutes into a pool of submission), the slowly unfurling pulsations of The-Dream's love-in-this-club "Abyss," sick-slinging "Panties to the Side," and sweet, tart "Turnt Out" have the pluming accrued effect of a pink cumulonimbus.
The last song in that particular sequence, a midtempo twang-bang a la the Isley Brothers's "Footsteps in the Dark," is almost too pretty to be real. In it, Nash floats atop the flanged guitar riffs and shuffling drums with a falsetto that would make Philip Bailey sit up and take notice, especially when he corrects his assertion that he can make his girl say "baby, baby" by jumping up an octave to approximate her pre-orgasmic range. But it's not like the song is an anomaly; note how much of his best material ends up offered to female vocalists. (As good as Love King is, no song quite steams up the windows as much as the slinking slow jam he and Stewart have gifted to Ciara, "I Run It.") Generous in matters of showmanship as well as—as per Paddy Chayefsky—cocksmanship, The-Dream is pleasingly attuned to the needs of women, and Love King is the nutgraph of his mission(ary) statement.