An Interview With The-Dream On His Groundbreaking Album 'Love vs. Money'
On its 10th anniversary, the legendary crooner speaks on writing songs for women, who "Rockin That" was really for, & more.
Back in 2009, it wouldn’t have been hard for The-Dream to just take the money and run. In the two years prior, he’d helped write a couple of the 21st century’s most definitive pop anthems, “Umbrella” and “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It),” alongside a litany of other hits. He’d already exceeded expectations with his first solo record, Love Hate; remarkably cohesive and technically masterful, it was also funny and real, cutting classic R&B sweetness with an Atlanta hip-hop edge. By his second album as The-Dream, the man born Terius Nash had practically the entire Hot 100 chart in his Samsung (that’s the 2009 equivalent of a Rolodex, right?). But instead of coasting on his newfound acclaim, he unleashed Love vs. Money—an ambitious vision quest into the mire of modern romance. Released March 10, 2009 via Def Jam and his own Radio Killa Records, Love vs. Money was dense, ornate, and much more broad-ranging than its predecessor, and as its cocky but conflicted protagonist, Nash made doing the most look easy.
But that’s what’s so great about Love vs. Money, and The-Dream’s broader catalog: rather than lean back on slam-dunk singles of the sort he wrote regularly for others, he aimed bigger, crafting capital-A Albums at a time when the full-length format wasn’t as relevant as it is right now. Love vs. Money is a dense, intricate collage of all sorts of sounds and moods, from the neon synth-pop of “Walkin’ On The Moon” to the elegant, six-plus minute reverie that is “Fancy.” But it was also in conversation with his previous records—and with pop music history at large—through clever little references, some easily recognizable, some for only the most attentive listeners. And though the central question of its title was inspired by Nash’s real-life revelations, listening to Love vs. Money makes the answer seem obvious. You don’t make records this timeless as a quick come-up; you do it out of love.
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Love vs. Money, we broke down the entire album with Nash over the phone. Answering the call, his cheerful “Ayyyy!” sounded just like his signature ad-lib.
Can you believe it’s been 10 years since Love vs. Money, or does that feel like forever ago?
It feels like yesterday, actually. Especially after I do a show. Because the energy just keeps going up, and the crowds, for some reason, keep getting younger. It’s really weird. But I think it has something to do with streaming. You can’t just go back to the store to get a CD that was from five years ago, but if you’re streaming, you can go back to whatever. My early records were pre-streaming, pre-anything on the internet that had to do with us actually making money off it.
Back when your first solo record, Love Hate, came out, I feel like the success of “Umbrella” allowed you to take some risks. It didn’t seem like you were about pleasing the industry; you were being yourself.
Yeah, I think I pleased a certain base that was being let down. At that time, R&B had got to this kinda sappy place. I was like, "What is going on right now? I miss Jodeci!"
By the time you got to Love vs. Money, did you still have something to prove?
It was just a part of the saga—and I think to this day, the music still continues in that way. If we’re still here and the climate change doesn’t kill us, I think history will look back at it as a full body of work. A 20-album saga that goes in and out of the idea of what relationships are, what drives them, the politics behind marriage, developing one-on-one contact with an individual.
Why focus on the concept of Love vs. Money? Where was your head at?
That’s where I was. I was coming into a lot of money; it was a different time for me financially. So now I’ma see what everybody’s about, and everybody was just what I thought they were. Oh my god. It makes people act an odd way. Especially when they grow up with an ideal of what the “American dream” is—they have these American shades on, and they’re in that place rocking out. Chasing their tail in a circle, forgetting what pure happiness is.
It’s funny you said the phrase “American dream” there, ‘cause you use that ad-lib all the time! Another thing about Love vs. Money—about all your records, really—is that you were highlighting how rap and R&B can relate. And then the rest of culture picked up on that, too.
I was just doing me! I wanted it to sound like a conversation, but not too much like a conversation—so we’re gonna keep it right here in this space, where people get to sing along. That was one of my things, I like when people are able to sing along—unless I’m doing “Falsetto.” But I didn’t even think about it. I just grew up in the band. I knew music, I knew melody. I also grew up in the ‘90s, so it was hip-hop culture. It was just a DNA thing. It had nothing to do with, like, let me fuse these things together. That’s what happened after I did it.
Let’s walk through the album a bit. “Rockin’ That Shit” had to be one of the first songs of yours I ever fell in love with. That pure vocal intro, and then the beat drops in! Why’d you kick things off with that one?
I knew what that record was. I remember Karen Kwak, a good friend of mine and an A&R at Def Jam, saying, “Yo, this is the single.” And I had done that song for somebody else, who ended up wanting a different song. I was like, I’m glad you said that, ‘cause this is the song I want for my album!
Who was the other artist?
Jamie Foxx, actually. So “Rockin’ That” was for Jamie at that particular time. “Digital Girl” was on Love vs. Money; I took it off to give to Jamie. “1+1” was on Love vs. Money; I took off to give to Bey.
Going to “Walkin’ On The Moon,” that song was kind of a curveball from you at the time. You took it from Prince to MJ, as far as wearing your influences on your sleeve.
At the time, I think people were trying to place on me a certain “Dream-thing.” For years, I’ve been undoing that on purpose. I don’t like the idea of somebody thinking they have an understanding of what I’m going to do. That’s why I like doing stuff like those Kanye records where it’s over there to the left, or a Pusha T record, something that has no goal of going No. 1. Or even last year, with the two Nas records, “Adam and Eve” and “Everything.” I’ma go over here and build out this part of myself. And the curveball you’re talking about in “Walkin’ On The Moon,” it’s the same with “Fancy.” It just depends on what you’re taste level is. “Fancy” got more of the credit, but without that freedom of “Walkin’ On The Moon,” you don’t get “Fancy” or “Right Side of My Brain.”
You know, over the years I’ve had debates with friends: what’s the best The-Dream song? Most of the time, “Fancy” is up there at the top. Which is sort of funny, because…
… It’s not the “basic Dream” sound! Like, what, that’s not “Shawty Is a 10?” But… it’s the best song!
That so-called Dream sound you were trying to get away from—is that the piano keys and the “ayyy!” and stuff like that?
It was just the idea that… what I was doing was never meant to be trendy. Period. And I noticed that people can steal certain stuff, but there’s certain shit they can’t steal from me. Records like “Fancy,” they can’t steal. Certain artists have taken the emotions of it to create themselves, but they can’t do that record. And they would never put “Right Side of My Brain” on their album. There wouldn’t have been a “1+1” just laying around, either. So there were these pockets I would go in on purpose, to take myself out of the conversation. It was this constructive/destructive thing I was doing.
Do you feel like if you wanted that massive mainstream success, you could’ve had it?
I don’t think I have the thirst for it. I don’t have a thirst for everybody to notice me when I step out the hotel. I’m more turned on when my peers are like, “Yo, you think I didn’t hear that verse at the end of Rick Ross’ ‘Money Dance’ record?” The best thing is when Ross calls me and says, “I think this is the best verse of the year.” That turns me on. A million people’s propaganda is not the shit that’s gonna make me jump up and down. It’s the people I really respect saying, “Make sure you run it by The-Dream.”
Jumping back to “My Love”: obviously the verse from Mariah here, and from Kanye on “Walkin’ On The Moon,” added a lot. But I’ve always thought it was cool that you resisted the urge, on most of your records, to pull out the Rolodex and be like, “Here’s all my famous friends!"
People don’t really like when I do that, either! I did that on IV Play like, "Oh cool, we got Bey, we got this and this." The best thing to really do would’ve been to do a movie and a soundtrack. That would have better explained the colors I was trying to create. But to roll it out like a regular album, it hinders the process. But you’re exactly right—which is why I did the last record, Sex Tape, with 40 tracks and no features.
Slightly off-topic, but I’ve wondered this for years—why do you love putting Fabolous verses on your songs so much? I always thought that was so random!
Really?! He’s the first person that ever got on my record, on Love Hate. Fabolous, to me, always knew how to talk to women on records, and that’s what I was going for. I think you was looking for somebody that’s not gonna say “Sugar honey iced tea, sweeter than a Hi-C.” If you really think about it, you’ll probably be saying, you know, he’s actually the exact person I would think to be on that record. ‘Cause who else would say that? Nobody! And that was always one of my things—like, no, don’t put that rapper on here, ‘cause they’re just gonna talk about themselves and some man shit. And nobody wants to hear that! I want somebody who’s in love with the idea of talking about a woman.
That makes so much sense! Well, you have a lot of songs like that—“Sweat It Out” is one of them—where it seems tailored specifically for women.
Yep. I did that song at my show last night. Every time I do that song, it’s so surprising. Early on, I didn’t give it the credit it deserved. I probably perform it now more than I did back then, and people lose their fucking minds.
It’s one of those songs that just gets women. “Call Leticia, your beautician!”
I just adore the idea of women, period. Everything you guys do, how you get up, shopping. I dress my wife more than she dresses herself. She has doper options! When you’re a woman, you can be anything. When you’re a guy, you’re just a fucking guy. Nobody gives a shit. T-shirt and jeans. That’s a metaphor, of course.
Going on to “Take U Home 2 My Mama,” that might be in the realm of the classic Dream sound you were talking about.
Mhmm. That was almost the first record you heard on Love Vs Money. It’s one of my favorite songs.
Yeah, it’s got all the good shit: the finger-snaps, the “ayyys," you’re talking about Patron—which is a very classic Dream detail! But I also know that your mom passed away when you were younger. And after hearing your song “Mama,” I’ve sometimes thought that music was a way for you to communicate with her, in a sense.
Ab-so-lutely. Music does two things. It keeps me in the spirit of my mom and my grandfather—able to shout to a place where I know that they can hear it. And the other part is, it keeps me from killing regular people on the street.
So then on a song like “Take U Home 2 My Mama,” when you’re singing about taking a girl home to your mom, you can imagine you’re doing that?
Exactly. That’s why it was almost first, too. Because it’s like, "Damn, this could never happen"—do you understand the sentiment? You have to understand the sentiment of what’s going on to really get me. “Mama” was already hard, and this one was even harder.
Now we get to the climax of the record with “Love vs. Money” and “Love vs. Money: Part 2,” and shit’s starting to get really real. What’s the conclusion here, as far as the problem of love versus money? Have you solved that one?
I think the new currency is relationships. Money’s just a thing that you need to pay your bills. An idiot can be born with money. It doesn’t make you cultural; you’re still an idiot. Some fucking schmuck sitting at the table like, “I got two jets, and one is over here…” Oh, god. I wish I didn’t have any money so I couldn’t be compared to you. But the love actually exists more in art. You’re doing it from a different place—as opposed to just trying to capitalize on a situation. Nah. I’m trying to do some dope shit. That’s it.
And you said it very well here: “When love is your problem, nothing can solve it.”
That was my own revelation. And you gotta understand, I’m thinking that theory different than how everybody else is. Because I’m thinking, nothing’s gonna bring my mom back. Everything works off of that theory. So if it’s a math problem for my creative self, I always know: nothing can solve this particular riddle. It’s the biggest riddle I’ll ever have to overcome, and it’s still never gonna happen. That’s there. That’s it. So now, I over-impress because I can’t impress her. I’ll never know if she’s like, “I’m completely proud of you.” So I try to create on a level of, oh yeah, you’ve GOT to be proud of me.
Let’s talk more about “Fancy,” because that song is so crucial. Another curveball, like you said. What inspired that mood?
I was just sitting in the booth in a studio in Vegas, and I started playing that riff on the piano, literally how it is. Just the sound, and where I was in life—Paris is all I see in my mind. And I see it with my imagination, not the way it really is. The best and craziest of times. And that’s what came out of it. If you was dreaming of a place from your desk, what would it sound like, and what would it feel like? That was it.
There’s a sad element of that song too, though. It’s melancholy, even though it’s so luxurious.
Oh, definitely. And that’s why I said that a lot of people built their sound off that sound, because that’s exactly what it is. It’s very luxurious, but there’s a darkness. There’s a very tender spot. Why do I feel a certain sad undertone? Because you know most people won’t ever get to live that way.
Then “Right Side of My Brain” continues that mood.
Those two spaces, “Fancy” and “Right Side of My Brain,” created that thing that we’re talking about. You could take those two spaces and create a whole career off of it—like, this is my sound. The song title itself says exactly what it is. People don’t know what the fuck they’re doing, basically. You can love somebody and wake up the next day and you don’t. What you’re really trying to do is just deal with yourself.
“Mr. Yeah” is another classic Dream production, with the doo-wop piano keys. My favorite thing about that song is something you do often, which are these little references to the rest of your catalog—the "ella's" and such. It’s like the Marvel universe or something.
If you would’ve got to the show last night, my opening screen thing is this Marvel type of thing with the covers of the albums, so it’s funny that you said that. But everybody doesn’t know that that’s what I’m doing—it’s really a breadcrumb situation that I’ve got going on. It’s like a musical treasure hunt, and I don’t care how many people know or don’t know.
It definitely makes it fun to be a fan of your music. On a more serious note, we’re now getting to “Kelly’s 12 Play,” which is obviously weird these days.
Yeah, tell me about it. But that’s not on the re-release. He made it so hard for everybody because he took the innocence of people who, in their youth, R. Kelly was their guy. Back in ’95 or whatever, you was just grooving, just dancing with your friends or your girlfriend. Those are real times in your life. Like, just throw that away. Because it was really that impactful. You attach yourself; music stamps the timeline of your life. It’s unfortunate on every side. If you’re a victim, of course, that takes precedence over anything for the listeners.
I want to ask about a side project you were doing around the same time as Love vs. Money, which was Electrik Red, the group you were producing for. To me, that’s honestly the most underrated R&B group of the 2000s.
Yes! I just think people wasn’t into groups at the time. Electrik Red was amazing. Actually, Binkie from the group is still a part of my team; she manages my artist, Bria. But sometimes, it’s just the time. You can’t read too far into it. But I thought [their 2009 album, How to Be a Lady: Volume 1] was the most amazing thing ever. I remember calling JAY-Z and saying, “I think this Electrik Red album may be better than Love Hate.” He said, “You need to watch your mouth.”
Do you have a favorite of your own records?
“Fancy” is my favorite record. Easily.