"Love Hate" (Def Jam) - 2 stars

If Prince was ever gone, he’s definitely back. He gave us Beyoncé-aided bravura at the 2004 Grammys, and we worshipped his phallus during this year’s Superbowl halftime show. Musicians have spent the past five years cannibalizing his oeuvre: “The Love Below” was no doubt the result of André 3000 stealing tracks from Prince’s vaults, and “Futuresex/Lovesounds” isn’t nearly as futuristic or original as JT would like you to think.

Prince himself has released three decent albums during that same five-year period, but they’ve gone relatively unnoticed. No matter. Purple still reigns. Just ask Cam’ron.

So don’t blame The-Dream for being in thrall to Prince. Any aspiring R&B singer would do well to study an album like “Dirty Mind,” to obsess over “1999,” to worship “Purple Rain.” However, you can blame The-Dream for not looking beyond Prince—and a handful of other influences—on his lifeless debut, “Love Hate.”

The purple presence becomes clear after a glance at the song titles. “Nikki,” “Fast Car,” “Purple Kisses”—they’re all here, along with “Luv Songs.” Thank Prince for creating a generation of functionally illiterate pop stars.

There’s some other biting going on too. A lot of the production work—frequently provided by Tricky Stewart—sounds as though Timbaland took several shots of Nyquil and then bet himself that he couldn’t make half an album’s worth of beats before falling asleep. Just listen to “She Needs My Love” or “Ditch That,” a dead ringer—albeit a dull one—for “SexyBack.” The first track and lead single, “Shawty Is Da Sh*!,” rehashes the staccato piano work of R. Kelly’s “I’m A Flirt” and Fabolous’ soporific verse cements his status as one of today’s blandest guest MCs.

Dream’s vocal work itself is heavily indebted. He sneers “Yessir” like Pharrell and yelps his “Ohs” just like Akon. His intervals recall R. Kelly, who he even invokes on “I Luv Your Girl,” singing: “Kelly told y’all don’t bring ‘em in the club.”

At times, Dream rivals Kellz for bawdiness, but not for creativity or personality. “Let’s take a shower / Meet you right back here in half an hour,” The-Dream sings on “Falsetto.” It could almost pass for a Kelly non sequitur—after their group shower, why exactly does Dream need 30 minutes apart from his paramour?—but there’s no charisma behind it.

“Fast Car” is unfortunately not a Tracy Chapman cover, but it’s almost verbatim “Little Red Corvette.” Linn drum-machine beats and handclaps abound: sonically, it’s a cute little Prince homage. But everything that made “Corvette” top-shelf pop is missing here. The-Dream doesn’t have Prince’s vocal chops, and “Fast Car” can’t match the feverish intensity of its predecessor.

Not to mention the fact that “Corvette” was, plain and simple, well written. Prince created an emotionally real narrator; his babymakin’ music was frequently campy, but it never felt forced and was heartfelt even when it wasn’t profound. The-Dream’s loverman persona is as plastic as his production. Car/sex metaphors were tired even in the early ’80s, but Prince had the talent to make it work. The-Dream simply doesn’t.

—Reviewer Jake G. Cohen can be reached at