The-Dream still calls himself Radio Killa, but recently that boast has begun to feel like a stretch. While the songwriter/producer has remained a dependable independent contractor, penning hits for stars like Rihanna and Beyoncé—if not quite mega-hits on the scale of past successes like “Umbrella” and “Single Ladies”—his solo career has stalled. The singles he’s tossed at radio since 2010’s Love King have bounced right back at him, and his label made clear its waning confidence by repeatedly pushing back his long-promised fourth album. An artist with The-Dream’s track record will always have a place in the music industry, but these signs suggest his place might be behind the scenes, though an egotist like The-Dream would never want to be limited to that. Thankfully, having something to prove has a way of bringing out the best in some artists. With prominent, deftly employed guest shots from Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and Kelly Rowland, IV Play feels like one last all-in attempt for The-Dream to prove himself to the charts, on his own terms, without caving to the dance-music trends he abhors. If his career is a sinking ship, he’s at least milking one last luxury cruise out of it.
Unlike his miserablist 2011 “Internet album” 1977, a limp cash-in on the alternative R&B renaissance that he helped spur, IV Play finds The-Dream returning to pop, albeit sterner and pricklier than the delirious ear candy of his first solo albums. Its opening stretch plays rough and dirty: The Jay-Z feature “High Art” launches the record with a mutinous rumble; the title track denounces leisurely lovemaking in favor of immediate, hard fucking; and “Turnt” gives itself over to the friskiest, freakiest Beyoncé performance since before her first pregnancy. Even when the album inevitably softens, The-Dream continues to seek out new sounds, taming his usual synthesizer overload for more restrained, Teddy Riley-styled grooves on the swooning Kelly Rowland duet “Where Have You Been” and the pleading, bump-and-grinding “Too Early.” These songs continually shift, turn over, and reinvent themselves; “Equestrian” transforms into an entirely new song in its final 14 seconds, because on a Dream album, 14 seconds can cover a lot of ground. After a rough couple years where he lost his footing, IV Play reaffirms The-Dream as R&B’s most tireless auteur.