Album Review: Shelley FKA DRAM – Shelley FKA DRAM

[Empire/Atlantic; 2021]

I did not know it was ever feasible for an individual to be so raunchy and savage, and yet so wholesome all at once, until Virginia rapper DRAM came along five years ago and dropped his debut album, Big Baby DRAM. There’s a palpable hedonistic air to DRAM’s style of hip-hop, but to simply deem it hedonistic would be short-changing the nuance in his art. Much more than a flex of charming self-indulgence, Big Baby DRAM was filled with emotional complexities – sadness included – hidden behind an endearing and warm veil of funk and R&B. Still, DRAM’s fun-loving, not-too-serious energy was the record’s main draw; to say he left ear-to-ear smiles with his first record would be an understatement. 

The glowing grins he left on listeners five years ago have since dwindled into cynical smirk. But the dog-loving artist is finally back. Except, he’s transformed. Not only does he operate under a new name, now Shelley FKA DRAM, he’s also taken a personal and artistic turn, a considerably mature shift that will have many surprised; it’s the Shelley show now, for better or for worse. In this pilot season, there are many laughs, as is customary with Shelley, but on this new album there are a few more tears shed than may have been anticipated. He’s gone from rapping bout “doing it sleazily,” to singing about the importance of self-care – slowing down after living too “fast,” clouded by booze and drug use. Don’t get it twisted though, the artist is still intent on leaving broad smiles, even if a few of his attempts fall flat this time around. 

Because he’s not as boisterous and tongue-in-cheek as he once was, it takes longer for Shelley’s brand of neo-soul to strike a chord. This will be a turnoff for those who cherished his big-cheese braggadocio, and understandably so. Given the time and place it was released, his debut occupied a carefree space many did not know they needed until his satin-sheathed baritone, accented with much laughter, first met their ears. But so much of this new record pushes against what we loved about Shelley. Whether it’s the tamed language, misused guest features, or the comparatively flaccid production choices, Shelley FKA DRAM plays it a bit too safe for those hoping for a good ole mix of the artist’s cheesiness and sleaziness.

Album opener “All Pride Aside” sets the stage with clarity regarding the record’s heavy focus on loyalty and, on the flipside, infidelity. Singing, “And if you gave me all your love, that means you enable me / But baby girl, I’m far from done, so now I must return to free,” the song paints a dysfunctional picture of an unhealthy relationship where the emotionally fatigued participants enable each other’s toxic ways. “All Pride Aside” is a relatable story that helps establish the heavy frame of mind from which this record was birthed, but the track’s weight fails to hold steady enough to leave an impact. With an unenthusiastic neo-soul instrumental attempting to set the mood through simplicity, “All Pride Aside” is a dampened firestarter to a sensual album that struggles to be more than a mere flickering flame. It doesn’t help that the supreme talents of fellow Love Renaissance (LVRN.) family member Summer Walker fall short of adding anything memorable to the track. One would expect that the duo’s first-ever collaboration would work on paper, given their kindred styles and proximity to one another, but that’s unfortunately not the case. Walker’s inclusion appears to personify a conversation with Shelley’s tired character, but her addition still feels one-dimensional, as if she’s talking to a wall, even when their two lovely voices harmonize during the track’s final moments. 

Blundered use of featured guests is a glaring mole on the face of Shelley’s second full-length. There are only three prominent features to count (unless you want to include WATT’s guitar work on “The Lay Down”), and the forgettable usage of a meteorically ascending mind like H.E.R. and the legendary presence of Erykah Badu is straight robbery of what listeners had hoped for when their guest spots were announced. It’s ironic that Shelley prefaces the Badu-featuring “’93 Acura Vigor” with commentary about the power of duets, because the guest contributions seem to be little more than mere accessories for the sake of drawing listeners into shallow waves of cursory R&B and soul.

On “’93 Acura Vigor” we barely hear Badu, merely noticing her presence as she sounds to be on the precipice of checking out completely; she comes across comparatively bored next to Shelley’s distinguished pipes. It’s hard to blame her for the shortcomings, as her vocals appear to be mixed with a lifeless touch, which doesn’t necessarily bode well with the reality that Badu’s voice continues to weather with age. Then, there’s “The Lay Down”, which, despite being the most sonically textured track with virtuoso guitar work from WATTS, mishandles what could have been a great team up with H.E.R.. Like the other guests, her addition is musical clickbait and provides nothing more than faintly recognizable backing vocals; an entire verse would have done H.E.R. justice, but she’s relegated to the background.

Regardless of these mishandlings, Shelley and his crystalline voice, textured with milk, honey, and a shot of smooth bourbon, buttresses this flawed record without grimacing. As you listen to Shelley throughout, it’s easy to envision the Virginia rapper beaming his iconic smile as he carries the weight of the record, even if it seems he’s ready to collapse to the floor. His voice this time is tinged with slight fear, reflecting that fact that life has dealt him a lesson or two this past half-decade. He sounds more willingly wary, especially in the way he expresses what he wants in a relationship, singing on “Exposure” all silky smooth, “Let me touch your soul before I touch your skin / Let me love you inside out, and outside in… Hopefully, I really am prepared / to split my life and share.” Sure, the eroticism is still there, but now his intentions are pure — an evident mark of maturation from his debut, where the singer boasted loud and often that he could “hit that shit so greasily.” Not that the latter is a damaging indictment of his former character, it’s just heartwarming to hear a more healthy perspective shift — one that’d even make his mama proud. 

Speaking of his mother, it would be a crime to talk about this album without acknowledging the impact she has had on Shelley’s new sound, lyrical approach, and overall way of living. Last year, his mother’s passing was the catalyst to Shelley shedding his hectic rockstar life in order to expose what was deep down inside. He’s an unabashed mama’s boy who inherited empathy, soul, an infectious smile, and the gift of loving others — sincerely. When considering his mother’s ears were the first to entertain her son’s transformation and that Shelley held off on releasing this new record until his mother’s birthday, the 32-year-old’s sophomore album feels sacred, even with its flaws. 

Because its sacredness is palpable, there’s an ample amount of grace to lend to the newly-renamed artist and his new album. Listeners initially underwhelmed by Shelley’s substantial maturation and shift away from dumb fun will soon warm up to this new record. He’s in love with living more than ever and his happiness now emits from a deeper sense of self, a more profound understanding of what and even who he wants. How can anyone be up in arms about that? When Shelley’s happy, all is right in the world. Well, sort of.