Last week, R&B god the-Dream released a video for his single “Black” that underlined the song’s triumphant political message–inspired by the life of Nelson Mandela–with a staged protest pulling together representatives from a diverse range of causes, from Ukrainian sovereignty to the epidemic of gun violence in Chicago. It was a remarkably solemn moment from a performer who’s biggest moment of mainstream exposure in recent memory was when he got clowned by Jay-Z for the outfit he wore to the Grammys.
At 7 p.m. last night, the-Dream that his cult of devotees know and love—the one who writes songs about things like buying women expensive handbags in order to get off the hook for doggish behavior or getting drunk on tequila and crashing an ex’s wedding—came bouncing giddily back with the surprise release of a free seven-song EP called Royalty – The Prequel. It is, thankfully, a far less serious record than “Black,” or even most of last year’s IV Play, which even his hardcore fans had a hard time finding much pleasure in.
The-Dream is an R&B artist, but he’s always had a rapper’s spirit, and Royalty is, on one level, a playful tribute to the rap music that he loves. “Pimp C Lives” transmutes Houston’s syrupy hip-hop sound into future soul with a chorus that shouts out the late UGK rapper. “Cold” samples Mobb Deep’s classic NYC thug anthem “Shook Ones, Pt. II.” On “Outkast” he compares true love to the feeling he got from listening to Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik for the first time.
Getting to goof around and indulge his geekily obsessive rap-fan side is one of the benefits of the mixtape form. It also removes much of the pressure to produce radio hits, which seems to have begun having a detrimental effect on his work. Where IV Play feels constrained and lifeless, Royalty (and the free online album 1977 that he released in 2012 under his given name, Terius Nash) is vibrant and mischievous, the qualities that made his fans fall in love with him in the first place, and ones that help sink his hooks into you even when they’re not particularly sharp. Royalty‘s supposed to be the first release on a new “Designer and Culture Label” he’s starting called Contra Paris. Hopefully he won’t go back to a traditional label—he’s much better when he’s off his leash.