Before he became one of hip-hop’s most promising young talents, rapper and singer D.R.A.M. worked as a member of the Geek Squad at the Best Buy outlet in Newport News, Va.
He didn’t do house calls. Instead, D.R.A.M., born Shelley Marshaun Massenburg-Smith, excelled on the phone, reassuring folks in the first throes of some technological disaster or another.
“I knew how to talk to people,” he recalls. “Basically, I had social skills, which wasn’t necessarily the case with everybody else.”
D.R.A.M., 28, still puts those skills to use. On his warm, funny 2016 debut, “Big Baby D.R.A.M.,” he’s a friendly, approachable presence with little interest in the blustery tough talk that once defined the genre. He describes romantic relationships with uncommon tenderness. In “Cute,” he tells a woman, “One thing ‘bout me, I am a foodie / So you know I take you for a bite to eat.”
“WiFi,” featuring R&B veteran Erykah Badu, sketches a cozy scene of “Netflix and chill,” with both artists stretching their scratchy voices over a narcotic funk groove. Even “Cash Machine,” about the material rewards of D.R.A.M.’s success, charms.
Last fall, “Broccoli,” his bouncy duet with the equally affable Lil Yachty, hit No.5 on the Billboard Hot 100; it’s racked up more than half a billion streams on YouTube and Spotify. And this month he’s on the bill for the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival.
One key to D.R.A.M.’s breakthrough is his stylistic agility.
Last month, he released “Girl at Coachella,” a goofy (and shameless) pop-reggae single produced by the Norwegian DJ Matoma, and he’s got a guest spot on the upcoming album by Gorillaz. Each of these songs showcases different facets of his voice and charisma, but D.R.A.M. (Does Real Ass Music) never disappears into the music; you’re always getting a strong sense of the big guy with the booming voice and the sly chuckle.
“He’s an entertainer,” Matoma says. “He’s all about spreading the love.”
Talking about his collaborations, D.R.A.M. is quick to divert credit to his various creative partners, a habit hard not to view as an after-effect of his run-in a few years ago with Drake. In 2015 D.R.A.M. turned heads on the Internet with “Cha Cha,” a typically lovable number in which he describes his desire to go dancing in a Latin bar.
Not long after the song began to take off, though, the superstar Canadian rapper — widely known for helping himself to underground sounds — released his smash “Hotline Bling,” which had an undeniably similar vibe. (In an interview with the Fader, Drake suggested he was merely replicating a process common in Jamaican music, where multiple vocalists make different songs using the same beat.)
D.R.A.M. declines to speak in detail about the matter. But he does offer another telling credo he says he strives to live by: “Inspire, don’t conspire.”
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