After a string of EPs and some offbeat hits, rapper/singer D.R.A.M. arrives with his first full-length, a record filled with funny asides and sharp details and its fair share of memorable hooks.
Roughly forty percent of the Hampton, Va., singer and rapper D.R.A.M.’s appeal is that he seems like just a really happy guy. His happiness is palpable, indestructible, communicable. His breakout hit was about the cha-cha, for god’s sake, a dance so winningly goofy in name and act that even 6-year-olds know to giggle at it. The chorus was about how he liked to cha-cha, and it was clear from the way he sang it that he meant it, goddamn it.
After Beyoncé Instagrammed herself dancing to it, “Cha Cha” became the viral novelty hit that remained a hit after both the “viral” and the “novelty” wore off. D.R.A.M. quickly proved that he was going to stick around, pumping out a steady stream of joyful, heartfelt, and ever-so-slightly silly songs that treat rap and R&B like a big bubblebath. He has the broad, inspirational corniness of a star camp counselor, the kind of relentless motivational charmer who could coerce a roomful of older kids who should know better to get up and dance the chicken.
Rap in 2016 is having a dizzy moment, in stark contrast with (or perhaps relief to) the sobering and dark times. Gentle positivity is suddenly a virtue, or an armor, and you can see it in music from new kids like Lil Yachty, who floats and gurgles amongst pink puffy clouds of beats like Kirby in his Dream Land, to Fetty Wap belting drunk-uncle love songs on Hot 97, to Chance, counting his blessings and bringing a lifetime’s worth of church services into the booth with him.
D.R.A.M. doesn’t really have new ideas to pitch into this ball pit, but on his full-length debut Big Baby D.R.A.M., he reminds us that new ideas aren’t the whole game. The key to D.R.A.M. is his generosity, evident in his personality and his voice, a huge barrel-chested warble that lands somewhere in between iLoveMakonnen and Biz Markie. There is something sly in that voice, a sense that he is purposefully singing with just a little less certainty than he needs to, just to keep things relatable and allow you to belt along.
Consider the first chorus of the first song: “I had to tell myself to go and get it myself,” he sings in a burly tone, and his vibrato wobbles a bit, like someone losing control of bike handlebars and steering towards a ditch. But then he comes in behind himself, stacking rich, flawless, three-part harmony, the top line a laser-cut falsetto, and you are gently reminded: He is actually a powerhouse.
His best songs often hinge on concepts that could easily work as lame Lonely Planet-style parodies. Like the silk-sheets, window-steaming, bedroom-ready quiet storm ballad “WiFi,” for example, in which the male suitor gently croons “Do you got wifi? Cause I really wanna show you somethin’/But my phone is fuckin’ up” and the woman responds “Do you like my feng shui in my living room?”
Yes, the song is funny, but it hits all sorts of other notes, too—“Put your phone down, please don't check it” pleads the woman, who just so happens to be Erykah Badu, an artist who made an entire whimsical and philosophical riff out of a mixtape full of songs about phones just last year. The tremble in her voice is not joking, and neither is the music, which is yearning and erotic and frank. D.R.A.M. has indicated that Hot Buttered Soul was a guiding light for him while recording, and Big Baby D.R.A.M. is full of evidence that he has learned real lessons from this study.
He manages the same balancing act on “Cute,” a song that could be insufferably cloying if someone else were pushing it too hard—the chorus is, after all, “I think you’re cute/Oh yes, I do” repeated in a pinched falsetto, and it also features the line “I choose you like a Pokémon.” But specificity rescues it: He admits “one thing ‘bout me, I am a foodie,” and describes the exact moment and location he first saw her Instagram. The song isn’t funny—it’s giddy, and few human emotions are worth treating as seriously.
Great comedians slip the dead-serious stuff into the middle of their routines, and D.R.A.M. sneaks in some confessions amidst all of this crowd-pleasing. He even kinda/maybe/sorta takes a shot at Drake, who jacked the beat of “Cha Cha” and attached it to his world-conquering “Hotline Bling.” “I was hemorrhaging in the red and I could not afford it/N*ggas tried to appropriate me, I could not go for it/I’m taking mine, I’m claiming mine, bitch I go Narco for it,” he bellows on the Young Thug-featuring “Misunderstood,” one of the only minor-key songs on the album. Even on his surprise Top–40 charting hit “Broccoli,” D.R.A.M. makes sure to note that he’s “at the restaurant with that ‘why you gotta stare?’ face,” implying that he’s aware you might have a reason to stare at him, and that he might not like the reason. It’s a barest hint of vulnerability, but it deepens the surrounding joy.
Some of the interludes on Big Baby D.R.A.M. sound like they originated in some distracted shower-singing moment and didn’t evolve from that point—“In a Minute/In House” gently wastes nearly six minutes of your time as he coos in your ear, and “Change My #” is similarly directionless. As an end-to-end album, it can grow tiring; as delightful as, say, “Cash Machine”’s flip of Ray Charles’ “Hallelujah I Love Her So” is, sometimes you just need a breather.
But D.R.A.M., one eye forever on the shot clock on his 15 minutes, leaves hints that he has yet another act planned; the sultry and low-key “Monticello Ave” retools some classic ’90s R&B grooves while he sits back, rapping in the pocket about the peculiarities and frustrations of his not-quite-star life and pining for someone. “I’m still mad at you for the shit you did, but not that mad, so just come to where I’m is,” he pleads. It’s poignant and small-scale and intimate, and about a million miles away from “Cha Cha.” Maybe one day we will no longer even remember that is where he started.