Photography Phill Knott

In his songs, and his conversations, The-Dream swears a lot for an R&B singer. “Shit.” “Damn.” “Muthafuckas.” Nouns, verbs, adjectives. He sings as audaciously as he speaks. He’s even got an unreleased track called “You Ain’t Shit” (the perfect complement to his debut single, “Shawty Is Da Shit”); it’s a shoo-wop-sounding slow jam whose hook (“You ain’t shit, you ain’t shit”), sung in a smooth, yearning falsetto, is in complete contrast to the mellow beat. It’s the best of both worlds: the gritty and the sweet.

A North Carolina native raised in Atlanta, the singer/songwriter, born Terius Youngdell Nash, 31, first found his groove as a member of the local singing group Guess Who in 1998, before meeting and working feverishly alongside producer Christopher “Tricky” Stewart, starting in 2002, to build a now-scroll-length
discography (see sidebar). Despite the nonplatinum status, it’s his multiple songwriting and production credits, and his albums—2007’s Love/Hate and 2009’s Love vs. Money—that have earned Dream the admiration of industry peers. Rejecting the notion that R&B has to be sappy, he’s quickly becoming the closest thing to R. Kelly since the R&B thug himself, when it comes to hip-hop soul. Where other R&B dudes play Mr. Sensitivity, The-Dream is frank and blunt (see “I Luv Your Girl,” “Ditch That Nigga,” etc.). His rapperesque persona (the swearing helps) and tell-it-like-it-is touch bleed into his performances, production, songwriting and guest appearances.

It’s a Wednesday night in late May, and the backstage area of NBC’s Late Night With Jimmy Fallon is buzzing. From a couch in the green room, The-Dream is awaiting his performance set, watching on a flat-screen as Fallon chats with actor Chris Hardwick then American Idol winner Kris Allen. Dream is ostentatiously garbed in sagging Diesel jeans, with a black-and-red handkerchief tied around his left ankle, a smedium denim Dolce & Gabbana jacket, a red leather Yankees cap and, for the stage, red Cupid Le-Barrage gloves. His new fiancée, singer Christina Milian (their pending nuptials were confirmed in the end of May), occupies a cozy spot beside him the entire time. With Tina as his arm candy, The-Dream, the Radio Killa, R&B Gorilla discusses the growing synergy between hip-hop and R&B, the future Mrs. Nash (who occasionally chimes in), and finding the rhythm and blues in everyday life.

You’re definitely one of the R&B artists who are more ingrained in rap, compared with other singers. What do you think of the term hip-hop soul? How would you define it?

Well, you can’t really make hip-hop soul something that R&B was already in the ’60s and ’70s. It’s almost like… Not disrespectful, but it’s like R&B kind of fell off when the ’90s started, because I guess it became kinda useless… There wasn’t no Gerald Leverts and Otis Reddings, you know, the people that were the catalysts. I think it was R. Kelly by himself basically just holding it over, until a certain point. How we dress and the things that we do in hip-hop culture influence what R&B is, but rap is rap. It’s talking. It’s not singing. R&B is R&B. Regardless of what our clothes look like this year or how we walk, whether our pants sag, the song itself is still an R&B song. I think even when guys was rapping and singing, they were doing R&B records. But hip-hop, the word, is associated with rap.

Do you see a stronger connection now between rap and R&B?

Yeah, I think it’s more guys professing their love, even through rap records. Even Kanye. That’s R&B. The feeling and everything about it is R&B. Now we could say that he’s a rapper, that’s his profession, but he made an R&B album, and that’s what I see it as, no matter what everybody else say. If clothing and all that shit goes away and we start wearing our shit all tight and shit and hip-hop, if it’s associated with baggy shit and all that, if that goes away, then what is it? Now everybody’s basically singing. Or trying to… Now what would be the question is whether we make them say that they’re doing an R&B record or not, you know. I think that a part of me and a part of why this is going on and why we’re doing the feature is it might be cool enough to say that now. Oh, it’s cool to sing that.

For more of the Got to Get It interview make sure to pick up XXL's August issue on newsstands now.