The-Dream can’t understand why he’s not more widely loved. He’s won six Grammys yet he describes himself as “severely underrated, and the designation fits: The-Dream crafts consistently high-calibre songs both as a solo artist and as a writer for others, yet he’s never quite ascended to the superstar status afforded to many of his peers, and it tortures him. His latest project, Royalty: The Prequel, is quintessential Nash in that sense: It’s a from-nowhere reminder of his unparalleled knack for R&B, complete with chip-on-the-shoulder saltiness towards his more widely appreciated contemporaries (“She threw them Beats on, start bumping Frank Ocean right in front of me/ Now it’s Trey Songz, followed by the Weeknd, then Miguel, now Drake’s on,” he complains grudgingly on “Cold”).
Royalty is a digestible seven-track entree and presumably there’s a meatier main course on the way, but it’s densely packed, both sonically and emotionally; featuring an innuendo-heavy sex jam over lurching, throaty bass (“Duet”); a languid, heart-on-sleeve ode to his queen (“Outkast”); and a cynical, anti-romance anthem set over a jubilant, ringing beat (“Wedding Bells,” a kind of hardened sequel to 1977′s “Wedding Crasher”). It’s not a flawless tape: The ultra-slow “Lake Michigan” is heartfelt but high-fructose, and “Pimp C Lives” sees Nash belatedly riding the Houston appreciation wave, dropping worn-out lean references on a track with only a strained similarity to H-Town’s trademark sound. But despite the cloying moments, Royalty is The-Dream doing what he does best: maximalist, multi-layered R&B with an emotional rawness that leaves you feeling like you’ve peered directly into Nash’s openly-dissected heart.
The-Dream was recently married for the third time, but he’s perpetually hung-up on past loves: Nash has been frozen in heartbreak purgatory since 2007′s Love Hate, and in 2014 he’s still singing “the stories of old lovers that [he] will never get over,” as he puts it on “Lake Michigan.” The-Dream’s entire discography is a testament to the type of love that can permanently devastate a person, and his Royalty EP is no exception. It’s heartbroken, jubilant, apathetic and adoring all within the space of 28 minutes; a dense and compelling project from an artist who rarely misses.