The-Dream has a knack for pulling out a variety of things from the artists he works with. Just today, Destiny’s Child member Kelly Rowland released a Dream-produced track, “Dirty Laundry,” recounting an abusive relationship and her post-DC mixed feelings about Beyoncé. For that matter, some of Bey’s most enormous girl-power anthems came from The-Dream’s pen. And he turned Rihanna from mid-level pop singer to full-blown superstar with “Umbrella.” But his gifts are also imparted to acts that are not household names. He nurtured group Electrik Red, signing them to his Def Jam imprint Radio Killa, as well as writing and co-executive producing with partner Tricky Stewart their album How To Be A Lady: Volume 1. The quartet were sort of the Vanity 6 to his Prince — a group of girls owning niche sexuality under his tutelage. While ER achieved some critical acclaim, they were ultimately relegated to working as back-up dancers in videos for Mariah Carey and Ludacris, among others, and in the film Dreamgirls (Beyoncé strikes again!). But despite their lack of significant commercial success, they’re a prime example of The-Dream’s tastes. While he can write a rosy tell-off like “Single Ladies” or coo-y saccharine love notes like Justin Bieber’s “Baby,” Dream loves R&B’s seedy underbelly. We hear that in his own music and we hear it with another Radio Killa signee, young singer August Alsina.
In January, Alsina released “I Luv This Shit,” the first single from this week’s mixtape honoree, The Product 2. The puzzle-pieces of the song fit perfectly: A kinetic, bleary R&B track about continuing to get fucked up, despite already being too far gone, featuring a rap verse from Trinidad Jame$, whose “All Gold Everything” lyric — “popped a molly, I’m sweatin’, woo!” — was at its zenith of memeification. Its horn-imbued hook is radio-primed, as is Alsina’s Trey Songzian vocal delivery. But Songz Alsina is not. His output straddles the line between his mentor’s unabashed balking at the necessity to be sweet when singing about love and sex, and the thug-crooning of someone like Tim Vocals. Vocals had some wowing moments last year with his mixtape Live From Harlem, which featured him spitting explicit new lyrics over songs like Ne-Yo’s “Sexy Love” and Drake’s “Marvin’s Room.” But while both those songs (“Bust My Guns” and “Bags Of The Sour,” respectively) are given new life via Vocals’s addition of street parlance, it’s rare when he makes the original better (the major exception being “K In The Trunk,” his version of Kirko Bangz’s “Drank In My Cup”).
One of the most satisfying moments on a mixtape is when an artist takes another’s song, transforms it into their own, and creates either its perfect pole or a track that should have been the original all along. The last one to truly pull off the latter for me was Lil’ Wayne’s gregarious rendition of one-hit wonders Fast Life Yungstaz’s “Swag Surfin’” on his Internet-ancient tape No Ceilings. And while Weezy is just flexing mouthfuls over the beat, it’s one of the last instances that I felt awed by his lyricism — he just completely owns their song. In the former instance, though, one can do this by picking a specific piece of a track and building a bigger product around it. On Product, Alsina restructures Justin Timberlake’s “Suit & Tie” into the syrupy, gunshot-laden “Shoot Or Die.” It’s arguable that the best part of “Suit” is the chugging, pre-horns “I be on my suit and tie shit” opening. Producers Knucklehead, the Exclusives, and Alsina himself morph Timberlake’s intro into a hook, then stretch it across the astral plane, add extra bass and twinkling keys, and the song goes from a hanky-panky anthem to life-or-death mission statement.
But unlike the old-beats-only theme to Vocals’s aforementioned catalogue, “Shoot Or Die” is one of only a couple instances of re-appropriation on Product. Stripper ballad “Confessions” features an intro from The-Dream dropping lyrics from New Edition’s “Can’t Stand The Rain” and continues with Alsina mutating the chorus of Juicy J’s “Bandz A Make Her Dance” into melancholia; even when he is borrowing, it’s with his own spin. The original material gives way to a new, grimy space where producers and songwriters should stretch their legs. On a track like “Inhale,” we get a cooing lamentation of being a part of a girl’s first time, singing to her that she “took it like a G” — only it’s not about sex, it’s about smoking. And while it takes us until the chorus to actually confirm the lyrics are not all euphemisms about Alsina, ahem, himself, there’s something weirdly endearing about sweetly sung, blantant weed-proliferation that you’d never get from a Lloyd or a Mario, despite their sonic similarities. Other standouts on the tape include the Roscoe Dash-featuring “Work”; a collaboration with Dipset’s Juelz Santana “Hell Yeah”; and “FBGP (Fuck Bitches Get Paid)” — all song that could be gauchely categorized as GangsteR&B, were we to allow ourselves to invent a neologism as silly as PBR&B (e.g., Frank Ocean, the Weeknd). But with salaciousness and filth-mongering already present as ever (e.g., R. Kelly, Omarion’s new Maybach Music persona), a distinction about the generally unheard thuggery needs to be made. Alsina is writing the blueprint for how we synthesize a lot of what we value from rap themes and R&B sounds. Naturally, The-Dream’s most sexually explicit album to date, IV Play, will hit shelves only weeks after Product’s release, and no doubt Vocals is spending his time locked up writing to his heart’s content. 2012’s R&B may have pushed boundaries through indie-fication, but 2013 will be about hip-hop tropes dished at us through belts and purrs. This is where it starts.