The best thing I can say about D.R.A.M.’s debut album, Big Baby D.R.A.M., is that it lives up to its cover art. That is no small thing. I have found it pretty much impossible to feel anything but delight while staring at that image — D.R.A.M.’s cheesed-out ear-to-ear grin leaping out from my laptop screen while his pet poodle gives the camera what you’d almost have to call a knowing glance. It’s a joyous, ridiculous image that’s now come attached to about 53 minutes of joyous, ridiculous music.
“Broccoli,” D.R.A.M.’s big summer single alongside Lil Yachty, should give you some idea what to expect here: gloriously enormous sunburst melodies, lyrics so euphoric that they’re downright silly, dinky little synthetic beats, and one voice so full of emotion that it cracks and breaks all the time. On tracks like that, D.R.A.M. just levitates, projecting messy and uncool elation in every direction. And while most of the album isn’t as giddy and uptempo as that one song, D.R.A.M. still keeps that blissed-out feeling going even when he’s singing soft and hazy ballads. It’s an album so full of radical, overwhelming joy that it feels like a big, sloppy dog-hug. It would take serious work to maintain a shitty mood while listening to it.
D.R.A.M. is part of a growing legion of R&B singers — one that includes towering young figures like Ty Dolla $ign and Anderson .Paak — who carry themselves more like rappers than like R&B singers. Like a lot of those other guys, he started out as a rapper, even if he did do a stint singing in a church choir as a kid. And he still sometimes raps when he sings, though it’s often hard to tell when he’s singing and when he’s rapping. Like a rapper, he rides beats, letting his voice glide and skitter, never overwhelming the track with virtuoso theatrics. There’s nothing smooth about him, even when he’s singing smoothly. And he’s almost never singing smoothly.
Scraggly passion is D.R.A.M.’s thing. His voice warps and wrinkles and crackles. In the way he throws his voice around, I hear distant echoes of old-school early-’60s soul belters like Wilson Pickett and Solomon Burke. He’s not trying to sound perfect. On the whole of the album, I’m pretty sure the only people using overbearing, robotic Auto-Tune are guest-rappers Yachty and Young Thug — and you know we’re in a weird place now where the rapper on a song sounds more like T-Pain than the singer. D.R.A.M.’s delivery is always effortful. Even when he’s cooing, he’s also rasping and growling. He’s a physical singer; you can practically hear his veins popping out. But there’s nothing throwbacky about his delivery; he’s not shooting to become some nostalgic anachronism. He’s just figured out what works for him. And it works so well for him that you can practically hear his sweat hitting the foam around the microphone.
Aesthetically, D.R.A.M. belongs in the same universe as his tourmate and collaborator Chance The Rapper. If you’re listening for it, you can hear echoes of jazz or gospel in what he’s doing. But with tracks like “Broccoli,” you’re also hearing something that could erupt a club right now. Late in the album, he goes into zone-out mode, and on a song like “Sweet VA Breeze,” he duels with an organ and a Fender Rhodes, chasing pure beauty. But he’s just as comfortable singing about money and asses over sleek, terse tracks. He also knows how to program an album, letting the reverie of his Erykah Badu duet “Wi-Fi” dissolve into the party-music one-two punch of “Cash Machine” and “Broccoli.” And while he goes from celebratory adrenaline-rush to dizzy love-hymn over the course of the album, it’s all connected; all of it sounds like it’s fully within his wheelhouse.
D.R.A.M. has been been honing that style for about a decade now, but he’s been doing it out of the spotlight, hitting up open-mics in the conservative, military-dominated Tidewater region of Virginia, spending much of that time in a go-nowhere day job at a call center. He’s only been in the public eye for about a year and a half, and for most of that time, I assumed that his fame was a quick little flash. His breakout hit “Cha Cha” struck me as thin and obnoxious gimmickry — albeit, in the right circumstances, pretty fun thin and obnoxious gimmickry. When Drake took that sound and twisted it around, turning it into “Hotline Bling,” it seemed like that would be D.R.A.M.’s legacy, becoming one of the many half-anonymous voices whose ideas Drake used for fuel. (D.R.A.M. himself seemed pretty bitter about it at the time.) But with his recent run of singles, and now with a beautiful happiness-overload debut album, D.R.A.M. has effectively avoided all that. He’s proven himself. These days, he sounds like an absolute force — a true original with a real gift for conveying feeling. His poodle should be proud of him.
Big Baby D.R.A.M. is out 10/21 on Atlantic/Empire.
Other notable albums out this week:
• Lady Gaga’s indie-influenced comeback attempt Joanne.
• Leonard Cohen’s stately and grim You Want It Darker.
• Weyes Blood’s thoughtful and stunningly gorgeous Front Row Seat To Earth.
• NxWorries’ scattered, euphoric team-up Yes Lawd!
• American Football’s long-awaited self-titled reunion LP.
• Planes Mistaken For Stars’ roaring comeback Prey.
• Kero Kero Bonito’s fizzily joyous Bonito Generation.
• The Radio Dept.’s sonically adventurous, politically motivated Running Out Of Love.
• Spirit Club’s scrappy, harmony-heavy Slouch.
• Jimmy Eat World’s polished emo return Integrity Blues.
• Cakes Da Killa’s bouncy club-rap party Hedonism.
• The Pretenders’ tough, savvy return Alone.
• Jacuzzi Boys’ hedonistic rocker Ping Pong.
• Kevin Devine’s sunny, playful Instigator.
• Savoy Motel’s self-titled disco-garage party.
• Tanya Tagaq’s layered, impassioned Retribution.
• St. Lenox’s strange, incisive Ten Hymns From My American Gothic.
• Nail Polish’s jagged punker Authentic Living.
• Communist Daughter’s gentle, fluttering The Cracks That Built The Wall.
• Crocodiles’ reliably bleary Dreamless.
• Mithras’ death metal crusher Strange Loops.
• David Crosby’s latest veteran move Lighthouse.
• Weakerthanks frontman John K. Samson’s solo album Winter Wheat.
• The original cast recording of David Bowie’s musical Lazarus.
• Felicita’s A New Family EP.
• Really Big Pinecone’s What I Said About The Pinecone EP.
• RBTS WIN’s King Summer EP.
• Kelly Lee Owens’ Oleic EP.