Shelley Marshaun Massenburg-Smith, known professionally as D.R.A.M. (“Does Real Ass Music”), made his name in 2014 with a Super Mario–sampling instant classic called “Cha Cha.” The song quickly joined Mr. C The Slide Man’s 2000 hit “Cha-Cha Slide” in the canon of tracks you can always play at parties to get everyone on the dance floor, particularly if the party is a wedding. Just about everyone who heard “Cha Cha” recognized its universal appeal, including Drake, who made “Hotline Bling” in its image, drawing charges of blatant biting along with millions in digital sales. “Yeah, I feel like I got jacked for my record,” D.R.A.M. tweeted, “but I’m GOOD.” All shadiness aside, the success of “Hotline Bling” ultimately provided D.R.A.M. with a profile boost, as DJs everywhere mixed the two songs into each other.
Big Baby D.R.A.M., released last week, shows his range beyond “Cha Cha,” but it also fulfills that song’s promise, striding between genres with a core element of breezy looseness throughout. The album's joy-inducing cover art depicts the Virginia-raised artist wearing a silk headband and smiling broadly as his pet goldendoodle, Idnit, hugs him, and there’s a childlike feeling of glee running through much of the music. The brief motivational opener, “Get It Myself,” produced by Chance The Rapper collaborator Donnie Trumpet, is a self-starter’s mantra: “I had to tell myself to go and get it myself.” It’s a statement of purpose and intent for the album at large. “’Cause I got tired of waiting on everyone else,” he continues, as his own backing vocals slide in with gorgeous harmonies — he’s his own cheer squad, well aware that nobody else will do it for you. D.R.A.M.’s beautiful voice and the chorus of multitracked D.R.A.M.s behind him sparkle, then fade out at the peak.
D.R.A.M. appeared on Chance’s Coloring Book earlier this year, singing an interpolation of Debra Laws’s “Very Special” on the album’s shortest track. Big Baby D.R.A.M. feels like a sibling to that album, sharing Chance’s Sesame Street–like sense of wonder and musical warmth while dealing with decidedly adult concerns about love and loyalty. D.R.A.M. has cited Outkast and Parliament-Funkadelic as two of his biggest influences, and like both of those groups, he treats music as a blank canvas to play around on, experimenting with whatever elements strike his fancy. He’s as much a soul singer as a rapper, and he channels Bootsy Collins’s playfulness on songs like “WiFi,” a double-entendre lovers’ duet with Erykah Badu that is both sexy and hilarious.
Lead single “Broccoli” features Lil Yachty and a riff that sounds like The Legend of Zelda’s “Ocarina of Time” — it’s the song here that most directly recapitulates the chiptune charm of “Cha Cha,” with an added blast of euphoria via Yachty’s backing vocals. “Misunderstood” features a guest verse from Young Thug and a driving Ricky Reed beat whose propulsive high-drama chord progressions sound like Foreigner’s “Urgent.” The buoyant “In a Minute” turns into the soulful “In House,” forming a two-part fantasy about arranging a booty call you can’t actually get to while out on tour. “Cute,” produced by Kanye collaborator Charlie Heat, is a romantic first date with a synth part that could be the soundtrack to an Animal Crossing game. The Nintendo theme persists, although it never becomes overbearing or cutesy, even on a song like “Cute,” where he sings, “I choose you like a Pokémon.” And while D.R.A.M. is highly skilled as a fully modern conversational rapper, he is just as believable as a David Ruffin–style gentleman soul singer on album closer “Sweet VA Breeze,” a low-rider oldie with fake analog crackle where he sings, “Real love, feel love, taste love, smoke love.”
“Monticello Ave” is a nostalgic trip about a casual fling that keeps coming back — “I’m still mad at you for the shit you did / But not that mad, so just come to where I’m is.” Even though he keeps insisting it’s just physical (“One night of rough sex, but after I still won’t answer your text”), there’s a tenderness in his voice that betrays his suppressed affection for this unnamed girl, the one he always comes back to when he’s at home.
There’s a lot of piano on Big Baby D.R.A.M., enough that it made me consider whether D.R.A.M. wants to be rap’s Billy Joel. He certainly shares Joel’s knack for a big, bright hook with a melancholy undercurrent. But a better clue to the kind of piano man D.R.A.M. dreams of being can be found in “Cash Machine,” which samples Ray Charles’s 1956 debut hit “Hallelujah I Love Her So.” Like Charles at the dawn of 1950s rhythm and blues, D.R.A.M. is interested in trying out every musical crayon in the box. His debut is uncategorizable as any one genre, but it’s always distinctly the exuberant sound of D.R.A.M. He exactly captures in audio form the feeling of getting hugged by a cute dog right when you need it the most.