Wednesday, October 26, 2016

album review: 'big baby d.r.a.m.' by d.r.a.m.

So I may or may not have said in the past couple reviews that the mainstream Hot 100 has sucked a fair bit in 2016. Sure, it's mostly getting better now but that's a slow process and it sure as hell isn't happening all at once.

But one of the unrelenting bright spots has been the inexplicable success of the breakout single 'Broccoli' by D.R.A.M., Virginia rapper and the sort of immediately recognizable presence that mainstream hip-hop has really been lacking this year. And yet despite how much Lil Yachty nearly ruined that song, D.R.A.M. managed to outshine him - and I mean that beyond just a reflection on skill and personality. No, what D.R.A.M. brought with 'Broccoli' was positivity and energy, no doubt influenced by his association with Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment and especially Chance The Rapper, which is where I've been recognizing him over the past eighteen months. And while there's a part of me that wishes Chance could have gotten to the top first as a more thoughtful MC, if it takes D.R.A.M. to throw the doors open, I'm definitely on board. In other words, I didn't quite know what to expect going into Big Baby D.R.A.M., but I had the feeling it would at least be fun, something that the desaturated monotone of most modern pop could definitely use. Hell, the only other guest stars besides Lil Yachty were Erykah Badu - okay - and Young Thug, and this would be the sort of lush upbeat production that I've been looking for Young Thug to rhyme against for some time now. So no more wasting time, how was Big Baby D.R.A.M.?

Well, it was interesting, that's for sure, and not quite what I expected, even though I did indeed have a lot of fun with this album. It sure as hell is the sort of debut record I like hearing that has personality and distinctive character and even was willing to try more styles and sounds than I was expecting, even if D.R.A.M. didn't hit out of the park consistently. In other words, this is the sort of debut that has a ton of real promise and definitely deserves attention - hip-hop as a whole could use more artists like D.R.A.M., especially when he's in his own lane.

So might as well start with that and D.R.A.M. as a rapper - and when I say that, it needs to be expanded to include him as a singer as well. Make no mistake, for as much as his slightly unstable melodic delivery might remind you a bit of Fetty Wap, D.R.A.M. doesn't need heavy autotune to stay on pitch and actually sound pretty damn smooth when desired, drawing on his lower range consistently that calls back to R&B, soul, and even hints of blues in his cadence. And while of course the harmonized multi-tracking is a big advantage, D.R.A.M. also has the sort of free flowing expressive voice that slides across tones effortlessly when both rapping and singing, which lends a nice unpredictability to his voice. And of course while that might bring the Young Thug comparison, it should be highlighted that as a songwriter D.R.A.M.'s got a remarkable grasp of cohesive songwriting and rhyming as well - he might bend across melodic elements in his singing, but the well-structured flow and cadence has a real foundation to it - and he makes it look easy. I can't tell you how much D.R.A.M.'s natural charisma is a huge boost to his material - like Fetty Wap he's bringing real earnest charm to his delivery, but his presence and general mood puts me more in the mind of artists like Anderson .Paak, albeit probably a little broader and less refined. It's the sort of delivery that can work well for comedy, and the fact that he doesn't seem to take himself that seriously makes a lot of the sillier touches on this album far more likable than you'd otherwise expect. That doesn't mean he can't hold his own on a more serious song - he and Young Thug go bar for bar on 'Misunderstood' and it's awesome, one of the best here - but opposite Erykah Badu on 'WiFi' his delivery does a lot to make the song just ridiculous enough to work for me, and it helps she's game for it too. On the flip side, it's also the big reason why Lil Yachty doesn't work on 'Broccoli' - beyond the flubbed rhymes and reference to Columbine and the lyric 'Fifty Shades Of Grey, beat the pussy like Hulk Hogan', he's got nowhere near the charisma, expressive presence, or bars to match D.R.A.M., and his guest verse really holds the track back from greatness.

Of course, it helps that D.R.A.M. actually has a somewhat different take on modern trap-flavoured production for this record. It's actually a pretty fascinating blend - sure you get trap snares and bassy synths and beats, but the midrange synths and pianos are the furthest thing from dark or intimidating. Instead, we get major chords, a fair amount of staccato energy, and  organic texture coming through in the associated bass guitar, organ, or actual guitar tones that dip into soul and funk. And that's not counting the g-funk tones that showed up in the whistling synths on 'Monticello Ave.', 'WiFi', and '100%' that reminded more than a bit of 213 with a bit of trap flavor, a sound on which I could entirely embrace! And that's not even touching the growth of the guitar and drumlines on 'Misunderstood' that came at precisely the right times, or the goofy electric flute on 'Broccoli', or the vintage touches of strings around 'Password' or how this record goes straight for old-school soul on 'Sweet VA Breeze' with the organ and live drums and touches of horns, or how the piano lines all across this record are surprisingly intricate when you dig into the details. Really, on a compositional level this record seems to be straining to inject more personality - maybe it was an issue of budget or the fact that Atlantic wanted to be cautious for D.R.A.M.'s first record, because there are definitely some production choices that can feel a little thin or unflattering. The jingling trap beat on the first half 'In A Minute/In House' definitely could have used more defined body, the hip-house groove on the first half of 'Outta Sight/Dark Lavender (Interlude)' wasn't quite as well-structured as I'd like, the sandy trap touches don't quite flatter the funkier guitars on 'Change My #', and there's a thinner tone in the organ on 'Cute' that should have been mixed it, the frequency just felt too high.

But really, a lot of the instrumentation was solid, so where does this album stumble? Well, normally I'd point to the lyrics but here it's a more complicated case, mostly because the lighter tone taken in delivery and some of the more ridiculous content - which of course D.R.A.M. commits to entirely - makes things a tad tougher to evaluate. When he is straightforward, like on the celebration of 'Broccoli' or the frustration of 'Misunderstood' - where he questions his struggle if people wont' even understand his content and message that he's trying to convey, and Young Thug highlights the surprising power in not killing, operating on pure intimidation - or the straightforward love songs of '100%' and 'Sweet VA Breeze', he knocks them out of the park. But there are definitely points where D.R.A.M. can come across as a little tactless, which might fit his personality but doesn't really flatter all of his songs. Now most of the time it's just silly: 'WiFi' is a good example, as they want to get to 'Netflix & Chill' in his girl's boyfriend's house and it's played just broad and earnest enough to work for me, and 'Cute' is him falling for some girl with money on Instagram and D.R.A.M. plays the hapless fall towards domestic sharing so plainly that you can almost excuse how he says he'll 'choose you like a Pokemon'. Or take 'Password', a song where his girlfriend is going through his phone and since he actually wants to make it work he's praying she doesn't find old pictures, as he knows his own tendency to get up and walk away - it picks up a bit of pathos, even though you realize she accurately guessed his password was his name. Or take 'In A Minute/In House', where he's trying to take a girl's virginity with over-the-top sex references that span from 'vitamin D' to getting 'sparked like an owl' to her 'sneezing on the dick'... only for the second half of the song to kick in and he can't even be at home to savor that, showing the pose disguising the sincere longing underneath. 

But going back to 'Broccoli' and that Columbine reference, that was actually taken out in the first draft and D.R.A.M. fought to get it back in, seemingly unaware that a reference to dead kids after a school shooting so incendiary that Eminem couldn't get away with might feel out of place in a party song! And all of it raises questions of tone and execution: I like the instrumental on 'Cash Machine', but it's not so ridiculous to highlight the song is anything beyond hollow bragging. 'Monticello Ave' has him connecting with an old flame at home he clearly has some feelings for where there is history both good and bad, and yet instead of confronting it he still makes it very clear it's just about the sex and he's not going to call her back. Similar sentiments show up on 'Change My #' where he talks about ditching an ex behind and feeling so much better, but the bragging feels a little hollow, lacking the sort of self-awareness and punch to cut a little stronger here. I get the sense that D.R.A.M. is still very much adjusting to the idea of success on this record, and it's just taking a little bit for his poise, self-awareness, and better nature to catch up, which means despite his delivery there are moments that can come across as self-serving or more dickish than he probably intends, even beyond undercutting it with humour.

But even beyond that, I really liked this album. I don't love it - it's got enough issues in production and writing to be held back from a truly great record, but I see a ton of potential here. D.R.A.M. is easily one of the more promising mainstream-accessible rappers I've heard in some time in terms of charisma and sound, which means I'm giving this a solid 7/10 and definitely a recommendation. I don't know how long D.R.A.M. will be able to ride the wave with 'Broccoli', but this is promising regardless, and I'm definitely looking forward to hearing more.

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