D.R.A.M., "Big Baby D.R.A.M." (Atlantic)
D.R.A.M., the Virginia rapper/singer who crash-landed into pop last year with the earnest goof "Cha Cha," is one of the first breakout stars of hip-hop's whimsy era, a rapper and singer who switches without trepidation among vocal approaches, moods and stylistic lanes, but never loses his grin.
His excellent full-length debut album, "Big Baby D.R.A.M.," is joyous, clever and moves in surprising directions. It's festive but also deeply felt, historically minded but also utterly of the now, when hip-hop has largely sloughed off its dourness, its rugged reserve and its reliance on tension. In this moment, melody has become central, and youthful freedom is the prevailing spirit. Whimsy is the next logical step.
"Broccoli," a collaboration with Lil Yachty — another artist at the vanguard of modern whimsy — is currently at No. 5 on the Billboard Hot 100. It's D.R.A.M.'s biggest hit, and emblematic. The primary instruments are piano and flute — in the distance, you can hear the Renaissance fair — and the tempo isn't particularly quick, but feels jaunty nonetheless.
Early in the song, D.R.A.M. sings, "Ain't! No! Telling! What! I'm! Finna! Be onnnnnnnnn!," landing harder and more effectively on each successive word, like ascending a staircase, a trick that feels borrowed from rock 'n' roll shout singing of the 1950s. D.R.A.M.'s voice is wobbly and fuzzy, sometimes oscillating like the sound that emanates from the arcade booth when Pac-Man dies. It's endlessly mutable — flexibility is his signature. The wobble also connotes a lack of self-seriousness: Formal rigor isn't part of D.R.A.M.'s arsenal, nor is complexity. Instead, he's a conversational lyricist, who sings in spoken sentences, massaged into melody.
"WiFi," an appealingly rusted pseudo-neo-soul duet with Erykah Badu, seeps, throbs and sighs. D.R.A.M. goes into his upper register for the flirtation: "Do your boyfriend pay your bill for you/To Netflix and chill with me?" Badu retorts with pressing questions and sly evasions. In the song, Wi-Fi is both literal subject and symbol.
Rick Rubin is a mentor, and on this album, there are production credits for Kanye West associate Mike Dean and also Donnie Trumpet, a longtime collaborator of Chance the Rapper's.
"Big Baby D.R.A.M." is full of offhand riffs on several decades of black musical styles — "Get It Myself" leans in on a sort of DIY gospel harmonizing, filtered through 1970s electro funk. "Outta Sight" sounds like house music played by a slightly tipsy live band, and it's followed by "Dark Lavender," driven by lounge piano.
"Monticello Ave" uses piano the way the Native Tongues might have, then slaps New Jack Swing-inspired vocal harmonies atop it. And on "Misunderstood," an uproarious collaboration with Young Thug, schlock-pop producer Ricky Reed serves up triumphant "Eye of the Tiger"-esque 1980s power rock, while D.R.A.M. comes on like a comedic Rick James impersonator. Jester, seducer, shouter, whisperer: D.R.A.M. is at home in any of these styles — it's all in good fun.
Jon Caramanica, New York Times