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Live review: The-Dream at the El Rey

April 9, 2012 |  5:00 am

In a show that featured thrilling renditions of some of his most durable songs, the R&B star also demonstrated the deep fertility of his signature sound.


When the-Dream removed one of his chunky gold necklaces Saturday night at the El Rey Theatre, he probably didn't mind that his action brought notice to the jewelry's heft and sheen. But that wasn't why this fashion-conscious R&B star did it: Halfway through a concert that had emphasized his breezy jocularity, the-Dream was unloading ballast before getting down to business.

"I figured out a very profound thing," he told the audience. Then he delivered an unprintable homily that more or less boiled down to the idea that professional misfortune could be attributed to having sex with the wrong woman. ("It works both ways," he added, warning women away from Mr. Wrong.) The-Dream was describing what he'd learned after a tumultuous two-year period during which he split from his wife, singer Christina Milian, and reportedly ran afoul of his record label, Def Jam.

Last summer, the-Dream issued an album under his real name, Terius Nash, for free through his website. Titled "1977," presumably after the year of his birth, the record stripped away much of the pop-soul gloss that defines the-Dream hits such as "My Love" and "Walkin' on the Moon" as well as songs he's written for other artists, including "Umbrella" by Rihanna and "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)" by Beyoncé. It's a jagged, recriminatory document suffused with frustration and self-pity, and at the El Rey, he funneled its bitter intensity into a performance of "Used to Be" that felt more like a monologue than a song.

"You used to sex me crazy / You used to call me 'baby,'" the-Dream growled as his three-piece band worried an eerie minor-key groove, "Now all you do is nag me / Like a 5-year-old from the back seat."

Saturday's 70-minute concert was one of the final dates of the Kill the Lights Tour, a monthlong trek meant to build buzz ahead of the release this year of the-Dream's fourth studio album, "Love IV MMXII." And insofar as the show contained thrilling renditions of some of his most durable tunes -- "Fast Car," "Love King," the 2007 hit known on the radio as "Shawty Is a 10" -- the gambit paid off: Singing over sensual yet muscular arrangements that occasionally recalled Prince's early-'90s work, the-Dream demonstrated the deep fertility of his signature sound; no current R&B act makes records as instantly recognizable as his.

As in "Used to Be" and a handful of other songs, though, the-Dream also appeared to indicate that he'd outgrown that effervescent flash.

"Kill the Lights," from the upcoming disc, was slow and moody, while "Roc," another new song, felt much more aggressive than it does in its recorded version. You assumed the upshot of the-Dream's vulgar homily was that his breakup with Milian had replenished his creative juices.

Yet the second half of Saturday's show suggested that the experience instead had led to a realignment of his priorities; he seemed amid a kind of unvarnishing process, one that may have inspired his posting to Twitter on Saturday morning a picture of himself doing crunches in the courtyard at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills.

The performance peaked with "Fancy," from 2009's "Love vs. Money," which he sang while holding onto a microphone stand at center stage, lighted from behind like Barbra Streisand or Celine Dion. The song is about a woman in love with the-Dream for his ability to provide a comfortable lifestyle, and its lyrics, peppered with brand names such as Bentley and Fendi, make no judgment on her motives. But Saturday, as a mounting beat drove the track toward a climax, two large video screens behind the-Dream displayed a series of explosions; the singer then segued abruptly into "Right Side of My Brain," in which he accused a lover of feeding him lies. It wasn't a verdict, necessarily, but it felt like knowledge hard won.


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-- Mikael Wood

Photo: The Dream performs at the El Rey Theatre in Los Angeles. Credit: Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times