The Virginia-based rapper/singer works hard to prove he's more than just a singles act on his debut album.
Back in the day, the idea of the "rapper turned singer" was a tricky line to toe; a Cee-Lo Green or a group like Bone Thugs-N-Harmony were just a few early examples of artists who excelled at blurring the lines of singer and rapper, but when say a Ja Rule or a Nelly got a bit too indulgent with their ability to harmonize, fans would seemingly always manage to turn on them and leave their careers in the dust. In the last decade, though, ever since the likes of T-Pain, Drake, Kanye West and even Lil Wayne turned in albums which were dependent more on melodies than bars, it seems a lot harder to find a rapper who won't also employ at least a bit of a sing-song flow once in a while. In the wake of autotune-abused lawlessness, rap has worked as hard to become as ‘musical’ as any other genre, and D.R.A.M.’s Big Baby D.R.A.M is yet another page in this chapter of rap.
Shelley Marshaun Massenburg-Smith, or D.R.A.M. as people best know him, is an artist from Virginia with a relatively young career, who has already gone through a surprising amount of learning experiences. On his early #1Epic mixtape, he offered the song "Cha-Cha," a light-hearted party rap song, that, depending on whose expert opinions you asked, may or may not have provided a little more than "inspiration" for Drake’s "Hotline Bling" record which undoubtedly was able to outperform its influencer. Still, D.R.A.M. didn’t seem to get too distracted by the one-uppance and worked hard to surpass the 'almost' hit in "Cha-Cha." On the Lil Yachty-assisted "Broccoli" he managed to pull that off with a surprising amount of ease, as the record became a platinum hit in no time.
Big Baby D.R.A.M., as a whole, has a great feel sonically, full of summery sweetness and a spirited bit of humor, which makes it feel odd for an autumn release. On the one hand, the whimsical nature and goofiness that occasionally pisses off the likes of "real hip-hop" heads, feels like a big-budget version of the Southern swag rap pioneered by teens such as Travis Porter and Rich Kidz at the beginning of the decade, later given a second wind by rappers who bear that influence with a more modern twist -- Fetty Wap or ILoveMakonnen (pre-”Tuesday” Makonnen’s more piano-driven material such as “Sneaky Lady” feel like an understated predecessor to D.R.A.M.’s galavanting). In fact, the presence of ATLiens such as Yachty, Young Thug and a surprising Erykah Badu duet suggest that in many ways, D.R.A.M.'s blissful coasting are the ripples of Atlanta’s impact. On the other hand, though, whereas so much of Atlanta is still tethered to its own sense of hip-hop production, there’s a much more pronounced pop lushness to D.R.A.M'S varied production. Many of the songs here could easily be slated next to the likes of Meaghan Trainor or Shawn Mendes, as they could fit on a mix with the likes of Lil Uzi Vert or Yachty. It's an indicator both of D.R.A.M.'s ambitions, and of a lot of rap these days.
Production-wise, the album is strong, sticking to a variety of palettes ranging from piano-driven pop and quiet-storm soul married to 808 thuds and rapid hi-hats, suggesting something for all kinds of generations to get attached to. Primed singles such as “Cash Machine” has a bouncy ragtime piano feel you’d expect from the likes of Andre 3000, whereas “Cute” sounds like a circa-’08 Soulja Boy trying to sample Four Tet. Whether its the likes of Cardo, Chahayed (whose keys were featured on “Broccoli” and maintain a considerable presence on the album), Donnie Trumpet, Charlie Heat, Mike Dean or even a more mainstream producer like Ricky Reed (best known for his helping hand with acts like Jason Derulo or Twentyone Pilots), few moments feel anything short of complimentary to D.R.A.M. When you do get curveballs, such as the housey synth-boogie of "Outta Sight," or the Graham Parker like anxiety-rock of "Misunderstood," they work to indicate a bigger feel for him as an artist. If anything, the only real confusion is the attempt of making a terrifyingly freakish beat like the one on "In A Minute" home to a song about getting ready to spend time with your girlfriend.
As far as subject matter goes, D.R.A.M. isn’t a terribly wide-reaching artist. Songs generally revolve around girls, and not wanting to bother with haters, as well as feeling like the greatest. Not for nothing, there will be at least a dozen or so rap albums and a hundred times as many mixtapes in the near future that are going to touch on the same thing. Lyrics and content aren’t a big draw for D.R.A.M., it's his melodies and his singing voice, which you can audibly hear he’s taken some greater pains to develop from those early stages of his work. He’s got a boisterous tenor with a slightly nasal tone, and a falsetto with rapid vibrato, conjuring up a churchy melodrama when he needs to. One of the more polarizing elements about D.R.A.M., however, is the real crux of his album, and that’s his personality. A goofy, earnest guy with a lack of self-seriousness, so much of the album is full of relatable, minor issues placed on a pedestal. A slow-jam duet with Erykah Badu is charming, but it’s just as easily edging on the side of corny-- given his relative inexperience, that sense of humor could easily be a great technique to build to further heights (worked for T-Pain after all!), but it could also become a crutch, as his songs may become generic without their presence. Weirder yet, when you listen to D.R.A.M. attempt straight-ahead rapping, you find very little of the reward.
Although D.R.A.M. had a bit of a tricky time to get himself into the spotlight on his own terms, Big Baby D.R.A.M. winds up being a solid debut with a real sense of fun. D.R.A.M. is an engaging host, and demonstrates plenty of room for growth, while offering more than just lighthearted party jams on the album. One thing’s for sure, whatever the future holds, you can probably bet he’ll greet it with a smile.