Dillo Artist Profile: D.R.A.M.
By Noah Franklin
Shelley Marshaun Massenburg-Smith does real ass music. That’s what the acronym D.R.A.M. stands for. Born in Germany and raised in Virginia, D.R.A.M. started singing at a young age. As he got older, he would sometimes play hooky from his job to battle rap passersby at the mall (until his mom found out). D.R.A.M. finally found the spotlight in 2015 with his single “Cha Cha,” and rebounded back onto the charts in 2016 with the Lil Yachty-featuring “Broccoli.” With just one studio album under his belt, last year’s Big Baby D.R.A.M., the genre-bending singer has already secured several other high-profile collaborations with the likes of Erykah Badu, Young Thug, A$AP Rocky, and most recently, Gorillaz. It’s no wonder he’s made so many quick friends in the industry; if you want a taste of the sunshine this man exudes, just check out his NPR Tiny Desk Concert. But without further ado, here are five essential tracks to prep for his Dillo set (besides “Broccoli,” because you already know that one):
D.R.A.M. saved this crowd-pleaser for months before putting it on his debut EP #1Epic, just to keep people coming to his shows. After Beyoncé posted a video of her dancing to it on Instagram, the song exploded. Cha Cha combines trap drums — twittering high-hats, 808s (and what seems to be the Mario coin sound) — with the flavor of dancehall. It’s conspicuously the OG “Hotline Bling,” and Drake has openly admitted to making the song his own, as in the Jamaican custom, where several vocalists record on the same “riddim.” D.R.A.M. slides across the infectious beat, singing of cha cha-ing with pretty girls. It’s fun, danceable, and it changed D.R.A.M.’s life. “Last year I was sleeping on my cousin’s couch,” he said after his swift rise. “Now people like Rick Rubin hit me up.”
Over a chopped and looped piano riff, D.R.A.M. boasts of his newfound success. He said that first check in the mail was instant inspiration for the song. The beat stutters and catches itself repeatedly, creating a teasing thump. The hook is an absolute earworm. In the second verse, he swoops effortlessly between a bellow and an airy falsetto, and then immediately locks into a percussive rap flow on the off-beats. He uses riffling bills as an instrument, conversing directly with his cash (Fun fact: the sound effect is actually made by D.R.A.M. himself, just using his mouth). You can almost vividly imagine him beaming from ear to ear in the booth while he recorded the song.
This song shows off D.R.A.M.’s softer side, but it uses a Charlie Heat beat, and so is weirdly still kind of a banger. D.R.A.M. is syrupy and sincere, and blushingly croons over a padded synth melody. Sometimes, ethereal harmonies in the background call to mind the tight, soulful layering of D’Angelo or Thundercat. It features the gem of a line “I choose you like a Pokémon,” which doesn’t come across as cringeworthy because he doesn’t take himself too seriously on “Cute.” The chorus is D.R.A.M. vamping his thoughts in the moment — literally just “I think you’re cute” — and in the bridge he asks the girl out on a date. By the third verse, he’s already planning to get married and move in with her. It all seems pretty fast, but how could you resist his voice?
Even though this track is, for all intents and purposes, an interlude, D.R.A.M. made his mark on Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book last year by interpolating Debra Laws’ 1981 song “Very Special.” Opening with some reverb-soaked, glistening chords, and the wash of waves, the music conjures the beach. The instruments sink underwater, leaving behind just a bass line and a soft hi-hat — and D.R.A.M., floating on top with a velvet vibrato. After a few bars, he’s joined by a chorus of backup singers, and together they repeat the short melody once more. The song fades back to where it started, and closes with a little, raw keyboard jingle. The sweetness of D.R.A.M. is packed perfectly into a track under two minutes in length. It’s one of his most polished and pleasing vocal performances, and is over all too soon.
This song came to be through a chance meeting between D.R.A.M. and Young Thug. He knew D.R.A.M. from “Cha Cha,” and they clicked and laid down what would become “Misunderstood.” Though Thugger will be absent at Dillo, his autotune-heavy verse is not his best, and D.R.A.M. can hold this track down all by himself. The track is basically hookless — just straight bars. And D.R.A.M has two complete verses of playful boasting. Percussive piano chords alternate between legato and staccato, and a bouncy bass and snare play call and response. Guitar noodling is slathered on top, and it makes for a splashy band. Like many of the songs on the album, this is a confident affirmation of staying on one’s grind and ignoring distractions to make it out of financial pits. Well, it really does seem like he only has higher to climb.