James Baldwin’s 1974 novel, If Beale Street Could Talk, has a passage about pursuing a career in music that is still relevant today: “She was twenty and had come to realize that, though she had a voice, she wasn’t a singer; that to endure and embrace the life of a singer demanded a whole lot more than a voice.”
Musicians who come to this realization — they all eventually do — must make a choice: Accept all that comes when a career becomes a life to endure, quit show business like the character in Baldwin’s book, or change with intention, rebuilding yourself from the residue of a dream deferred.
For R&B singer-songwriter Shelley, formally known as multi-platinum rapper DRAM, enduring or quitting wasn’t considered. There was only one choice to make: start anew, and begin again. This is much easier at the bottom when you’re without a name, but after becoming a notarized artist, starting over is a different story.
Still, Shelley was willing to take the risk. “I wanted this more than I was afraid of it,” the Germany-born, Hampton, Virginia-raised singer-songwriter tells Billboard over Zoom, following the April 29th release of his sophomore album, the semi-eponymous Shelley FKA DRAM.
Although it’s been written in every interview, what can’t be understated is how much D.R.A.M. — an acronym that stood for “Does. Real. Ass. Music.” — accomplished in a relatively short time.
His 2014 breakthrough single, “Cha Cha,” was a summertime sensation beloved by all. Pitchfork called it, “A song that sounds better, and giddier, and brighter, the more you play it, and feels good in 15-second snippets; in four minutes; right now, for the rest of the summer, and beyond.” Then there was the 2016 follow-up, “Broccoli,”’ a 7x platinum-certified mega-single that peaked No.5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and was nominated at the 59th GRAMMY Awards for best rap/sung performance.
These back-to-back moments of internet virality positioned the newcomer with the big voice and a bigger personality to be an on-the-pulse hitmaker in an ever-evolving streaming age. One who could produce giddy fluorescent anthems that moved bodies, blurred genres, and inspired memes.
Status-changing opportunities followed his breakout singles and well-received projects, as well as life-affecting habits. This duality of widespread success and private burdens brought the man born Shelley Massenburg-Smith to a professional and personal crossroad.
By Fall 2017, soon after The DAMN Tour with Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott ended, so did phase one of his career. The world didn’t know it yet, but Smith knew DRAM. was done. Entering 2018 came the decision to reemerge as an R&B and Soul artist under his birth name to better present, in both art and identity, the maturing musician Shelley knew himself to be.
“You have to understand,” he explains. “I’m basically stepping back out as a brand new artist. I left everything that DRAM did on the table. This is me moving on, and moving past.”
Not everyone has the stomach to hit reset in a business that doesn’t always support starting over. “The bravery [to risk starting fresh] came from the desire for the reward more than the risk,” Shelley explains. “When I say reward, I’m talking personally. I’m talking about knowing I truly put out exactly what I wanted to put out. So whatever comes from this project is exactly what I want from it.”
When asked what advice would he give someone who is ready to change but is also afraid to leave everything on the table, Shelley candidly replies: “Man, look. There’s nothing worse than going about your life doing something that deep down you really don’t want to do. Or carrying on a message, or a persona you don’t feel connected to anymore. So once you feel that, and if the bad outweighs the good by holding on, you have to go back to the drawing board. There’s nothing wrong with that.
“I’m not saying that’s the thing to always do,” he quickly adds, “Sometimes you have to look at your situation and if it’s more beneficial to your life to continue on, do that, but bro, as soon as you feel you want to change for yourself, you have to make that, for yourself. Because the only one who has to live with that choice is you.”
Shelley FKA DRAM is the outcome of Shelley returning to his own drawing board three years ago. The ten tracks that comprise this long-awaited follow-up to to his 2016 debut, Big Baby DRAM, distinguish how, in the quiet years of him away, a sophisticated vocalist with quiet-storm concepts and sensual songwriting has replaced the freewheeling rapper of cotton candy melodies.
“Maybe 60 or 70 records were made,” remembers Shelley when asked to tally the number of songs created while making the album. “The thing is, I’m a workaholic… but I know quality beats quantity. If I wanted to drop 50 songs, I could, I’m physically able to do it. But as far as my artistry and what I really wanted to get across for coming back out I couldn’t have side distractions, the album had to be very stated.”
The standout H.E.R.-featured “Lay You Down,” was the first record, made in 2018, that Shelley and his core brain trust — Josh Abrams and Oligee [Oliver Goldsetin] of Pulse Recordings ,and GRAMMY-winning producer Alan Watt (lead producer on “Lay You Down”) — made that matched what he envisioned his comeback would sound like. They continued conceptualizing a mature, contemporary take on rhythm and blues until Shelley FKA DRAM grew from that idea to a complete album.
Completeness, for the artist formerly known as DRAM, is what he believes will give his latest offering a lasting sustainability with listeners. He crafted each song intentionally to stand alone as individual records, but also, when heard together as a collection, they’re made to complement each other, like an anthology of love songs sequenced to be one concise story.
“A genuine expression of oneself through song,” he describes the feel-good, palette-cleansing music, before deciding on a better answer: “It’s me. It’s a piece of Shelley.”