Last year, D.R.A.M. was the victim of a famous heist. In March 2015, the Hampton, Virginia, native released his debut EP, #1Epic, earning a fan base and critical acclaim on the strength of a particularly groovy song called “Cha Cha.” It wasn’t a hit, but it won D.R.A.M. some crucial attention; Beyoncé posted an Instagram clip that shows her dancing to the song, and Drake riffed on “Cha Cha” at a wedding performance, where he first teased his own, forthcoming version. Four months later, Drake reworked the melody with an alternative sample, overhauled the lyrics, and released “Hotline Bling,” an unofficial “Cha Cha” remix which would eclipse its source by more than 1 billion streams. By the close of 2015, the sun had set rather coldly on D.R.A.M. Last New Year’s Eve, he released “1 Year,” since scrubbed from his official song feeds, where he screwed his flag to the ground and promised not to budge. “Often imitated,” D.R.A.M. sings, “but never duplicated.”
His come-up could’ve ended there, unfulfilled, as a footnote on the Wikipedia entry on Drake’s hit single. Other viral rookies have all but evaporated shortly after Drake helped put them on the map; for example, iLoveMakonnen signed to OVO Sound shortly after Drake remixed his breakout hit, “Tuesday,” only to find that Drake’s label is an A&R’s graveyard. But D.R.A.M. persisted. Rather than disappear, he gravitated to an alternative community of musicians. In April 2015, Erykah Badu told the New Yorker that D.R.A.M. was one of her favorite rappers. A month later, D.R.A.M. popped up as a writer and vocalist on Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment’s album Surf, hosted by Chance the Rapper. And now, D.R.A.M.’s debut album, Big Baby D.R.A.M., is rightfully the proud culmination of the singer’s will to overcome without vengeance. The lead single, “Broccoli,” featuring the youthful and sprightly Atlanta rapper Lil Yachty, now sits in Billboard’s top 10 and atop of the magazine’s Rap Streaming Songs chart, having achieved the commercial peak that “Cha Cha” would’ve, could’ve, and should’ve, but never did.
Fortunately for D.R.A.M., his modest and joyful disposition is what’s generally hot right now, and so he was built — or, he built himself, I should say — to ride the key spiritual innovations that have moved hip-hop in the past year or so. Young Thug, Chance, Yachty, D.R.A.M., and others have carved their own subgenre of childish pitches, lullaby cadences, and pronunciation in the style of Tommy Pickles. The two crucial pop culture components of “Cha Cha” are Super Mario, in the song’s original (uncleared) sample, and Nickelodeon, in the chorus. If the dominant trap styles of the past few years have channeled a bleak, chaotic outlook on human affairs, then the current surge of #BlackBoyJoy has fashioned an optimistic corrective. The violence is there, but the intimidation is false. The materialistic designs on personal growth are whimsical, laughable blueprints. On “Broccoli,” Yachty is rapping about shootouts (“Nigga touch my gang, we gon’ turn this shit to Columbine” ) and jewelry (“Ice on my neck cost me 10-times-three”), but as comedy on a safe playground. For D.R.A.M., Yachty, and others, “black boy joy” is super-sincere farce.
Which isn’t to say “fake.” Indeed, D.R.A.M. has vested his debut album with layers of exuberance so palpable, thick, and plain that cynicism cannot scratch it. Even the woe-is-me moments are a bit ridiculous. On the melodramatic rock ballad “Misunderstood,” which features Young Thug, D.R.A.M. belts campy mercenary tropes as if he’s scoring a spy thriller: “If I don’t know myself, then tell me how do you know? / I’ve come to prove and show you niggas that I’m trained to go.” On “WiFi,” he’s begging Badu for her internet password and more; the singer, in turn, pleads for D.R.A.M.’s undivided, offline attention. In the music video for his latest single, “Cash Machine,” D.R.A.M. rides a tricycle through the suburbs as he shoots crisp, tie-dyed Benjamins from a pink hand cannon. If there’s a single, prevailing theme in D.R.A.M.’s best songs, it’s gratitude.
D.R.A.M. has spent bits of songs and chunks of interviews distinguishing himself from Drake in the most gracious terms possible. But really, the music does the work for him. While fans credit Drake for having patented radical vulnerability in rap music, they are overlooking the rapper’s canny emotional remove; if anything, Drake is icy, manipulative, and self-serving in his songs. In fact, that’s the very difference between “Hotline Bling,” the diary entry of an omniscient voyeur who now leers at a former lover from great distance, and “Cha Cha,” a simple, flirtatious dispatch from across the bar.
On record, D.R.A.M. is a shy guy who can’t help but repress his deepest, secret attractions until the top blows and he belts everything out; he’s a sucker for love. He’s got potential hits on this new record of his — my money’s on “Cash Machine” as D.R.A.M’s fattest earworm since “Broccoli” — and perhaps any wild success that those songs may achieve will eventually jade him, even if he is already a late-bloomer. Believe it or not, D.R.A.M. is 28: a year younger than Drake but several years older than Chance, Thug, and Yachty, all of whom exude youthfulness that is at the very least a logical conclusion. For D.R.A.M., such playfulness, despite life’s setbacks, are a saving grace that’s uplifted him into good company.
An earlier version of this story misattributed the artist rapping about shootouts and jewelry on “Broccoli.” It is Lil Yachty, not D.R.A.M.