In the last few years, the Internet has helped create a new class of one-hit wonders: young artists, mostly in rap or R&B, who create a song that suddenly explodes in popularity on SoundCloud, YouTube, Vine or all three. When Beyonce posted an Instagram video of herself dancing to D.R.A.M.’s “Cha Cha” recently, this helped cement the Virginia rapper/singer as the latest overnight star of 2015, joining a group that includes artists like Silento and, to a lesser degree, Post Malone.
“Cha Cha” appeared on the #1EpicSummer mixtape last fall, which didn’t immediately catch fire — with these career trajectories, the momentum tends to build slowly and then suddenly appear unstoppable. But in February, the rapper convened with Rick Rubin. After the Beyonce incident, D.R.A.M. capitalized by quickly recording his own verse on the leaked version of Drake and Beyonce’s “Can I.” Last week, he nearly stole the show from a slew of better-known collaborators on Donnie Trumpet & The Social Experiment’s Surf album.
In some ways, D.R.A.M. is very of-the-moment. He’s a rapper-singer, or maybe a singer-rapper, at a time when just doing one or the other is unfashionable. And he’s picked up fame via the Internet, which now seems one of the most common ways to get a foot in the door.
But he’s also atypical. Unlike many of his peers who rap and sing, D.R.A.M.’s not from Atlanta. And while a lot of his contemporaries use technology to pitch their vocals up, D.R.A.M. prefers a deeper, throatier sound. His voice is an outlier; most male R&B relies almost exclusively on light, texture-less falsettos.
“Cha Cha,” D.R.A.M.’s ticket to the big time, is also an unusual song, even by the standards of today’s unexpected hits — Dej Loaf‘s “Try Me,” for example, or iLoveMakonnen‘s “Tuesday.” The blend of a Latin pulse with a hip-hop beat already encourages dancing, and the MC’s announcement — “I like to cha cha!” — adds to the giddiness. So far, so good.
But a lot of odd things happen, especially vocally: he leers and slurrs his words, betraying a hint of impatience under that happy, tinny synth riff. As he repeats the hook, he becomes more emphatic about it, more pushy. And the bass is huge and dark, threatening to bury all the good cheer. On top of that, this song doesn’t reflect the rest of #1EpicMixtape: “Goldens,” the track that follows “Cha Cha” on the tape, has a violent beat full of noises that evoke pistols being cocked.
Being known for one song doesn’t do an artist any favors when it comes to performance: it gives a show an air of inevitability. No matter what D.R.A.M. does, the audience knows the ending. At Baby’s All Right in Brooklyn, he knowingly teased his signature track early in the night, acknowledging that pressure. At first, it seemed like he might buck the trend and just perform the song, but that would ruin the fun. He succumbed to the formula.
But he didn’t succumb to predictability. For a good portion of the show, he actually ceded the stage to friends — Remy Banks (from Queens), Mass (his cousin), and others. That’s not something you’d expect from an artist eager to soak up his spotlight.
In general, D.R.A.M. was bent on sharing his new fame with as many people as possible. He remade “Caretaker,” an interlude on the recent Social Experiment album, as an affectionate duet, inviting the R&B singer SZA to dance with him on stage. In this format, the track became a sweet bubble of reverential neo-soul, with her vocals spiraling lightly, while his remained earthbound and gruff. D.R.A.M. also transformed “I Luv It,” a song from the #1Epic EP, into an elated melee on stage, as the singer and a throng of friends devolved into a sea of jumping arms and legs.
When he finally did play “Cha Cha,” naturally more people appeared. D.R.A.M.’s father got a chance to display his dance moves, and the singer smothered his mother in kisses. It was touching — and unusual — to see so much geniune warmth displayed on stage. But for D.R.A.M., unusual is the norm.