[Radio Killa / Def Jam; 2010]

Terius Nash’s songwriting prowess is old news by this point (“Umbrella” and “Single Ladies” is a pretty hard resume to top), but he’s been quietly building a solo career the last few years, and may be cementing his place as a sort of R&B Kanye West. Just as Kanye isn’t the world’s most technically proficient rapper, The-Dream’s voice isn’t on the level of an Usher or even an R. Kelly, but he succeeds on sheer force of personality. And like Kanye, it is clear that Nash saves his best material for himself. The Atlanta singer’s third studio album, Love King, isn’t his most consistent, but there’s nobody in R&B right now making more likeable records.

On Love King more so than on 2007’s Love/Hate or last year’s Love vs. Money, The-Dream and his longtime production partner Tricky Stewart are committed to putting the “future” in FutureSex/LoveSounds. The spacey synths and skittering, mechanical drums are 2006-vintage Timbaland at a time when Timbo has been reduced to ruining the careers of former Soundgarden frontmen. What’s amazing is that Nash and Stewart manage not only to imitate but to emulate the compositional brilliance of Timbaland/Timberlake tracks like “What Goes Around” and “LoveStoned.” The-Dream clearly envisioned the two-part “Sex Intelligent” as Love King’s centerpiece, but that one is too long and too slow. The real highlights here are “Yamaha” and “Nikki, Pt. 2,” the former of which crams enough hooks for an entire album into five minutes with Prince-like abandon, while the latter serves as a moody coda, returning to a Love/Hate jam about a particularly mercurial lover several years after the breakup.

God-given hook-crafting ability aside, Nash’s greatest asset is his ability to reconcile the hip-hop and R&B sides of his musical interests without pandering to either camp. He does this not just by singing over what could be rap beats like a lot of his less-interesting contemporaries do, but by bringing a genuine swagger to R&B-loverman material like the title track and especially “Make Up Bag.” Nash strikes this balance perhaps better than anybody since D’Angelo and R. Kelly at their peaks, and while some of his punchlines don’t work (“My love gets it poppin’ like the Taliban,” ugh), his cockiness has the advantage of having the beats and hooks to back it up.

Love King has flaws, sure. The aforementioned “Sex Intelligent” suite is a total drag that wears out its welcome about a fifth of the way through its 10-minute runtime. “Panties to the Side” is at least catchy enough to get by as mindless bubblegum, but it’s lyrically contrived beyond the point of ignoring. The closing “Florida University” uses its title as a euphemism for another use of those initials, which is pretty corny on surface level, but it’s the kind of corny that you’ll find yourself singing along with in spite of yourself. But that song is the only guilty-pleasure moment on the album—the rest is completely guilt-free, top-shelf mainstream R&B.