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The-Dream & the Ignored Art of Album Sequencing

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Steve Jobs cared about details obsessively, every detail, details so detailed others didn’t even notice them. This is a man that spent thirty minutes deciding on a shade of grey for a bathroom sign. No one with a full bladder will stop and admire his excellent color selection, but that didn’t matter, he stressed perfection in design, even the quality of details unseen. Steve’s passion for presentation is a trait that can be found in great artists too. From musicians to photographers, attention to detail is a quality that makes art fascinating.

Steve Jobs came to mind while I was getting reacquainted with The-Dream’s earlier albums. Last week, Nathan sent out a tweet about The-Dream and how the songs on his albums seamlessly blend into one another. It’s what inspired my urge to revisit.

I was still in high school slow grinding to “Falestto” when Dream’s first album was released. Pressing play on his debut, Love Hate, I immediately realized what Nathan was referencing. The song “I Luv Your Girl” ends with the sound of crickets and “Fast Car” begins in unison with the chirps, the transition between the two separate songs almost completely invisible. I immediately started bugging out. It was minor, something that I missed before, but this small component is what bridged the two together in a smooth and inconspicuous way. They became one in a sense. And then “Fast Car” followed suit by ending with ad-libs that are heard at the beginning of “Nikki,” “Nikki” ends with Dream crooning “shawty needs my love” and the same phrase starts of “She Needs My Love.” The subtle transitions gives the album’s arrangement a continuous cohesiveness, most of the album could sound perfect played as one long track, an effect you won’t notice if played on shuffle. Dream made Love Hate full of singles that can be stand-alone hits while crafting an album experience that plays in unison from front to back.

Not every song on Love Hate plays with a “unified” style, but a majority of it does. It’s as if he picks an album section and dedicates it to this specific style. He returns to this format on his sophomore, Love Vs Money. The narrative begins in the latter half, “Take You Home 2 My Mama” starts by blending smoothly into “Love vs Money,” the cohesive flow is consistent until the very end. The knocking on the bathroom door at the end of “Love Vs Money Part 2” maneuvers into “Fancy,” while “Mr. Yeah” ends with the saying “can we fuck now?” transitioning into “Kelly’s 12 Play.” Nathan also pointed out that Dream uses the same “A!” vocal hit on nearly every song, turning his familiar ad-lib into an ongoing, unnoticeable tag. I would’ve never caught something so minimal but it does create a sonic coherence that connects each song. On both albums, Dream worked closely with producers Christopher Stewart and Carlos McKinney, a very dangerous creative trio. I’m not familiar with their third album, Love King, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was produced with the same creative process. [Editor’s Note: Yep, check out “Sex Intelligent” blending into the “Sex Intelligent (Remix.)”]

Nathan and I struggled to come up with a name for this seamless style - transitions? blends? - but while the terminology was shaky, we’re far from the first people to notice how much artists seem to be playing with the structure of songs and albums lately. That original tweet prompted a flood of possible candidates, albums like Tyler’s Cherry Bomb and Justin Timberlake’s FutureSex/LoveSounds, but they didn’t quite meet the criteria. What those two albums share in common are multiple mergers of two songs into one track. Timberlake considered them preludes, short songs that play toward the end, for example, “Sexy Ladies/Let Me Talk to You (Prelude)" and "Summer Love/Set the Mood (Prelude).” Tyler also used this method with merging “Fucking Young/Perfect” and “Two Seater/Hairblows.” It’s a technique that I noticed TDE has used repeatedly: Kendrick’s “Sing About Me/Dying Of Thirst, ScHoolboy Q’s “Prescription/Oxymoron” and Ab-Soul’s “Just Have Fun/These Days.” But I would consider those tracks juxtapositions, two distinct songs crammed into one track as opposed to one longer song seamlessly stretched out into two tracks.

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I started to dig deeper, searching for the name that defined The-Dream’s arrangement style, I came across Andy Kellman’s review of Love Hate. A specific sentence stood out, “Not only does it lend the album a unified sound unlike most modern R&B albums, but it has the effect of a suite, with common elements shared between tracks; some of the transitions would make any album sequencing assistant deeply envious.” In French the word “suite” means “a sequence of things,” a term first used by composers for multiple dance movements popular during the Baroque era and then continuing through classical music and even being adapted by jazz musicians. One of the most famous modern suites would have to be John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme.

I know very little about jazz and even less about classical music, yet it seemed that The-Dream’s structure is reminiscent of suite music, heavily focused on sequence and transitions tied together by common themes. It was fascinating to draw this musical line between Baroque music and 21st century R&B. I wanted to hunt down more hip-hop albums that uses the suite method, but my searches only lead me to hotel and resorts. The word used to describe music from centuries ago didn’t really translate into hip-hop’s vocabulary. The mention of Coltrane lead me to Flying Lotus, the grand-nephew of the celebrated saxophonist. Lotus’ You’re Dead album is heavily jazz influenced and it has suite-esque qualities. The concept of death is the common theme, each song sonically captures passing on to the other side. Sure enough, the laughter heard on “Dead Man’s Tetris” blends into “Turkey Dog Coma,” a pattern of seamless overlapping goes until “Ready Err Not.” He also uses the blend to bridge “Obligatory Cadence” and “Your Potential/The Beyond,” a technique that I didn’t consciously notice until I started to listen for possible connections. I heard the music before, but my ears and mind were now open for what wasn’t on the surface. Even more searching and asking around led me to a small handful of other examples: the way The Roots use the guitar and drum hit of “!!!!!!!” to blend seamlessly into the much smoother “Sacrifice,” the way Marvin Gaye’s "What’s Going On" uses his “wooo-woooo” vocals as the connector between “What’s Happening Brother” and “Flyin’ High.”

Digging even deeper still, I learned that Marvin’s album is considered a “song cycle,” defined as, “a group or cycle of individual complete songs designed to be performed in a sequence as a unit.” Wikipedia cites that popular modern musicians use the method to tell stories using a short series of songs or capture a particular theme. Blending tracks is also a form of a song cycle, much like The-Dream and Flying Lotus, the start of a song continues from the preceding one. Kendrick’s TPAB is a great example, the woman’s voice on “For Free” that yells “you ain’t no king” that leads into “King Kunta,” while “King Kunta” begins the recurring poem that isn’t completed until the end. It’s the unified attribute that combines the entire album. It’s not a coincidence that “Alright” is arranged after “U,” the two songs together to show the negatives of depression and the positive reinforcement that everything will be fine. Kid Cudi’s Man On The Moon is structured as a song cycle, the entire album is broken up into five different acts that tell a specific story narrated by Common. When played in order, the narrative unfolds from distressing darkness into more confident determination. Tech N9ne explored a creative cycle on his latest album, Special Effects, the album is broken up into daily sections, from Sunday morning through an entire week. Each song encompass the feelings of the day, another concept that can only truly appreciated if the album is played in sequential order.

Albums in 2015 are completely, easily customizable. We can delete, replace and shuffle songs with the click of a button, the tap of a finger, no longer committed to the tracklist. It gives us control, something that our forefathers didn’t have. Yet that control can also ruin the art of album arrangements, an art form I’m realizing I didn’t truly appreciate until sinking into the rabbit hole that became this article. The small details, songs being blended together, narration, transitions, it all plays a bigger part in the overall experience. It’s the little details that initially go overlooked, that can often only be seen after repeated listens, that can make a difference. And in the rush of the modern era, when potential relationships are swiped left or right in less than a second, when we can skip through albums like hyperactive children unleashed at recess, it seems harder than ever to pay attention to the details. Terms like suite and song cycle, prelude and interlude, can all be useful, but ultimately they’re semantics. What matters more is how those techniques can deepen our experiences of a product, whether we notice or not. Steve Jobs and The-Dream both taught me this.  

[By Yoh, aka Flying Yohtus, aka @Yoh31]



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