In the summer of 2008, Shelley Massenburg-Smith touched down in Cheboygan, Michigan, with his brother and his best friend, TJ, as part of a crew contracted to paint an ice-breaking ship on the lake. Word spread throughout town: There weren't really any other black people around, and curious locals would stop the guys as they walked to Walmart and ask if they were voting for Obama. Massenburg-Smith would be at the supermarket trying to buy bread and get interrupted—OK, so another thing is, speaking of the bread, seagulls flew above the lake, and the guys could feed the birds from the balcony of their hotel. See, the trio was there for only a month, the beginning of a stint of painting ships in different places. But then the contractor fired them—which was weird, given that the other workers were a bigger problem. But that was a whole other thing.
"I heard they was smoking rock. Yup, I heard they was smoking rock on that off day," Massenburg-Smith remembered, sounding amazed and amused, even in the retelling. "Traveling through Toledo, Ohio, I was like, 'I didn't know y'all got busy like that! Facts! I was like, That ain't right! That ain't the work of the Lord!"
Anyway, Massenburg-Smith, better known as the musician D.R.A.M., told me all this when I asked him a question about his musical path. After dropping out of college in Kentucky, where he'd somewhat inexplicably gone to pursue his dream of being a famous rapper, he returned home to Virginia and went on, post-ship painting, to work in a call center before having his musical breakout. When D.R.A.M. starts talking about something, there's often no telling what he might blurt out or what direction he might head—including to Michigan. If that sometimes leads him astray, he writes it off to his alter ego "Big Baby," his mischievous side that's all about getting away with shit. With his large frame, long dreads, and broad smile, as well as his meandering, distractible charm, he's a bit like a human St. Bernard. He considers everything to be worth observation and appreciation, a quality that holds true in his music, too. His debut album Big Baby D.R.A.M., out October 21, has a gorgeous song about love and WiFi connections, while his hit single "Broccoli" takes a quick detour from giddy stoner anthem to describe his come-up as the moment he developed "a taste for salmon on a bagel with the capers on a square plate."
Not saying it's my year to say it's not your year—it's not anybody else's year, but a year that can be recognized as a triumph year for D.R.A.M.
On a sunny afternoon in late August, D.R.A.M. was in a midtown Atlanta studio putting the finishing touches on his record. Plaques for albums by Missy Elliott and OutKast hung on the walls. A faint smell of weed permeated the space as D.R.A.M. rolled up the first of the afternoon's many joints. "Broccoli" had just hit number 19 on the Hot 100 chart (it recently ascended to number six), the latest benchmark in a summer the song had unexpectedly spent climbing to the tops of various charts: Soundcloud, Musical.ly, iTunes, Billboard. He collaborated on the song with the polarizing teen rapper Lil Yachty, who D.R.A.M. believes to be the "epitome" of "all things that are new and current." Legendary music guru Rick Rubin facilitated the track. Overall, it was a bit of a coup, a welcome and fresh entry point into the work of an artist who has become one of music's most notable and in-demand new voices.
"At the top of the year, I was like, '2016 is going to be my year. I'm going to make something out of this year,'" D.R.A.M. mused, enthusing about the good vibes and sunny weather he found in LA as he started working in earnest on the music that appears on Big Baby. "Not saying it's my year to say it's not your year—it's not anybody else's year, but a year that can be recognized as a triumph year for D.R.A.M."
As far as triumphs go, D.R.A.M. has already had a few. His breakout mixtape 1EPICSUMMER, with its songs "$" and "Cha Cha," caught the attention of tastemakers like Rubin and Erykah Badu, who appears on "WiFi" and with whom D.R.A.M. has collaborated on a number of other songs that could possibly see the light of day as their own project. His talent for making hip-hop infused with a warm, melodic palette of funk and R&B has landed him in the studio with everyone from Kanye West to Pablo Dylan. "Behind-the-scenes, in the studio, low-key, I'm one of the ones," he declared. A crooning interlude on Big Baby, tentatively titled "Password," began as a song for Beyoncé, who ultimately passed on it but put him in touch with Mike WiLL Made-It and Diplo. The song examines trust through the lens of cellphone passcodes, and it's emblematic of D.R.A.M.'s ability to find a sympathetic soulfulness in sometimes-unlikely situations. He's also not afraid to be obvious and almost a little stupid: A standout guest track on Chance the Rapper's recent album, Coloring Book, finds him crooning "you are very special" in an exaggeratedly rich tone that would be hammy if not for its utter sincerity. His and Chance's band member Donnie Trumpet's shared interest in children's music inspired the song.
For many people, though, they first heard D.R.A.M. last fall, when Drake released a song called "Hotline Bling (Cha Cha Remix)" that seemed to be cut over D.R.A.M.'s track of the same name, but was soon renamed just "Hotline Bling." It became a monster hit, at what many people, D.R.A.M. included, perceived to be D.R.A.M.'s expense. Drake never said a thing to D.R.A.M., and the Toronto rapper played off the similarity in an interview with FADER, claiming his interpolation was the same as dancehall artists borrowing a common riddim. ("It's bullshit. It's bullshit. It's bullshit," D.R.A.M. lamented.)
I knew I had all these records and stuff like that, but at the end of the day, people don't give a fuck.
"I'm going to be 100—it devastated me on the low," D.R.A.M. told me. "I was really fucked up about it. I knew I had all these records and stuff like that, but at the end of the day, people don't give a fuck." He's over it now—"I can dance to that shit"—but at the time, it coincided with a mounting sense of self-doubt. "Cha Cha" had been out for a year, and even though it still went off at the massive shows D.R.A.M. was playing every night opening for Chance the Rapper, it could no longer single-handedly sustain his buzz.
"I would be on the internet, just kind of bummed out, and now somebody shoves a mic in my hand, I run out," he reflected. His follow-up EP, Gahdamn!, intended to be marketed as a collaboration with Chance's band, the Social Experiment, hadn't been presented the way he'd wanted, and its darker tone mixed weirdly with his high-energy shows. He would crowd-surf, and crowds would go crazy. But then, "a couple hours later, you wake up in the morning like, 'I still know that this shit is dwindling.' Calling niggas like, 'Ain't no shows coming? Ain't no afterparties?' No afterparties. I was the afterparty sensei!" He blew money on expensive Airbnbs and threw crazy parties, but he was coasting.
"I think it's a blessing in disguise, too, though, because I was getting too comfortable with that being my one," he said of the song's decline. D.R.A.M. was no stranger to buckling down when success in music seemed far away. Growing up in Hampton, Virginia, the son of a single mother in the military, he participated in church and school choirs, and he always leaped at the chance to solo. With rap, he found it harder to make things happen. The aforementioned stint at Kentucky State, where he formed a group called MTM (More Than Money), hit a dead-end ("We was dusty!" he laughed). Back home, he got caught up in a small-time recording scene that led nowhere. His mother and grandparents became skeptical of his ambition.
"When I was a kid, it was like, 'You gon' be something, you gon' be something,'" he said. "And then when they just saw niggas getting high and shit and trying to make rap songs, they were not into that shit. 'Boy, pick up your slacks, boy.'" Then he met Gabe Niles, a local producer, and the two of them clicked. His music headed in a sunnier, more melodic direction, beginning with the positivity of "$." They came up with "Cha Cha" initially as a goofy teaser track for D.R.A.M.'s live show, but they immediately received such a positive reaction that they decided to make it into a full song. Now, it's his hit, but it hardly captures the full range of what he does onstage. Performing earlier this year in New York on the Fourth of July, D.R.A.M. channeled equal parts of soul legend and pastor, ministering his "trappy-go-lucky" vibes to his flock.
Being with D.R.A.M., you get caught up in his world. Outside the studio, following our interview, he posed for pictures, feeling uncharacteristically awkward to be the center of attention. But soon he began to loosen up, goofily dancing and improvising a song. He wandered around, singing "pay your bills," perhaps inspired by an earlier conversation about his debt-collection job. A verse about the perils of credit-card debt emerged, kind of spilling out of him. He was wearing a "Broccoli" hat and pullover windbreaker a fan had sent him with a cute dinosaur painted on it; the jacket could have been branded as "Big Baby" apparel. He turned in the driveway and looked at the studio as he finished his song, apparently as spellbound by it as the rest of us—his friends, myself, the photographer. His face broke into a grin. "I might have to record that."
Portraits by Jill Frank.
Kyle Kramer is an editor at Noisey. Follow him on Twitter.