D.R.A.M. is a master of none. Or, more accurately, he is a master of most: The twenty-eight year-old songwriter switches between singing, rapping and crooning with such fluency that it’s difficult to decide which sound most accurately defines his.
Since initially rising to fame through the success of his breakout hit “Cha Cha” — famously sampled for “Hotline Bling” — he’s ridden the immense success of his out-of-nowhere single “Broccoli” to the top of the Billboard charts, proving himself both wide-ranged and extremely capable. Now, D.R.A.M. is taking his favorite tunes around the world on the Big Baby D.R.A.M. Tour, a playful spectacle that perfectly parallels the energy of his debut studio album, Big Baby D.R.A.M. The show is as musical as it is fun, and though its impressive opening acts could nearly steal the spotlight, it’s D.R.A.M. himself who truly sets the evening’s tone.
On Thursday, Detroit’s El Club was already filled halfway to capacity by just 9:00 P.M. when River Tiber — a moody, somewhat psychedelic, electronic chill-out band from Toronto — took the stage to start warming up the crowd with their drooping experimentation. With an inch of freshly-fallen snow coating Vernon Highway out front, the group’s singer clicked around on a laptop to initiate mellow drum loops while his wingmen plucked at the strings of their instruments with unswerving focus and fury. River Tiber creates a vibe that’s both mellow and intimate, but their intense instrumentality ultimately links the band to alternative rock: The guitars whine, like those in the most heavy-handed songs by The xx, as their players spew with the solo skills of veteran instrumentalists.
Around 10:00 P.M., River Tiber was relieved by Ari Lennox, a twenty-five year-old soulful vocal performer from Washington D.C. She came on stage wearing ripped leggings, black Vans and a “Stranger Things” t-shirt, but she didn't emerge until after her DJ set the tone, spinning songs by Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu.
Lennox led off with “GOAT,” then sat down to belch out the slower, more heartfelt “La La La La.” Before singing the intimate tune, she blamed it on a former eviction or two, explaining that she wrote its lyrics back when she was “running around L.A. and being crazy.” In the final moments of anticipation, just before the guitarist began jerking tears from the crowd through his articulately-capable fingertips, Lennox warned the crowd: “Don’t be afraid to look in my eyes, y’all!” Personableness is her great asset.
Having just released her first commercial EP “FOH" in November, Lennox is on a fast-track toward female figurehead status. On Thursday, she maintained effortless control for thirty straight minutes, her voice and charisma proving capable of carrying the crowd’s attention, and though many attendees might have been unaware of her prior, there were still audience members singing along, knowing every word.
Many hip-hop heads shared a unanimous epiphany when Lennox, setting up for her second to last song, asked the crowd if they had ever “gotten it” in a “backseat.” Immediately, I recalled where I knew her from: “Backseat (feat. Kozz)” — a standout track from Dreamville’s 2015 crew project, “Revenge of the Dreamers II” — came blaring through the speakers as Lennox’s addictive twang planted seeds for fandom in hundreds of ears, seeds that are certain to blossom with deep roots and longevity. She finished her set with “Yuengling,” then left the stage, the room in awe.
At 10:45 P.M., a new DJ came onstage, eventually followed by a three-piece live band. D.R.A.M. is a rare musician, having conquered the largely untouched intersection among pop, rap, R&B and childish giddiness, so it’s only natural that his show’s introduction is equally unique: Rather than walk out singing his own song, D.R.A.M. came out humming and whispering along as his band jammed to Drake’s recent hit, “Fake Love.” Perhaps I’m overthinking it, but the appropriative move might’ve been a fun, subtle way of taking from Drake as he did from D.R.A.M. After all, “Fake Love” does sound ironically like “Hotline Bling” (*cough* “Cha Cha”).
But D.R.A.M. gets serious. Wearing a white denim jacket from the KITH x Coca-Cola collection, he kicked his set off with album-intro “Get It Myself,” a soothing ode to autonomy, dedication and self-reliance that acts as a sort of synopsis on his pre-Big-Baby-D.R.A.M. career, then dove into “Misunderstood,” a high-energy croon-tune with serious rock influence. “Detroit, what’s good?” he asked at the song’s end, met by excited cheers, then proceeded naturally into some of his most defining moments on the microphone: “If you love your momma, let me hear you say yeeeeah yo!” The crowd reacted at maximum volume.
“Signals (Throw It Around)” from his Gahdamn! EP came next as a nod to older fans, followed by “Outta Sight” — a high-tempo, dance-floor-ready anthem about forgetting your ex. It turned El Club’s small, rectangular standing room into a bouncing castle and set a perfect mood for “Cute,” a slept-on hit from 2016 that’s sure to explode in the new year. Then things slowed down again. D.R.A.M. asked for some help from his lady fans as he dove into his Queen-Erykah-Badu-assisted song, “Wifi,” on which he wrestles with the generational struggle of searching for a digital connection while a real, potentially romantic one is already right there, then eased into “Caretaker,” one of the most intimate and impressive songs from Donnie Trumpet & the Social Experiment’s Surf, which also appears on D.R.A.M.’s Gahdamn! EP.
After a brief recess from the stage, during which his band carried the crowd’s energy with improvisation, D.R.A.M. returned to introduce his instrumentalists. Beside the DJ, there were superb players on the keyboard, bass and drums, jamming in and out of songs in a profoundly musical, seemingly cohesive manner. They shared the spotlight for just a moment as D.R.A.M. explored his reflective deep cut, “Sweet VA Breeze.” Then he jumped into an inevitable series of hits that put the room at its absolute rowdiest.
“When you look at that paycheck you just acquired…I just want this song to be the soundtrack to your celebration,” D.R.A.M. explained, adding some weighty meaning to his latest hit, “Cash Machine,” before working through “Cha Cha” and “D.R.A.M. Sings Special” (a track turned interlude on Chance the Rapper’s Coloring Book, after the Chicago-emcee allegedly begged D.R.A.M. for it). And finally, there was “Broccoli,” the Lil-Yachty-assisted former-number-one song in America, which D.R.AM. told Billboard he originally expected to only be “lit for the culture, lit for Soundclound, for the internet.” Rather than move swiftly into the giddy, summertime smash hit, he tiptoed through a singsong rework, then exploded into the original version for one final hoorah, which included a dive into the crowd.
It’s tough to decide where D.R.A.M. belongs exactly within music, but it’s even tougher trying to define his live show, as it merges sounds and traits from almost every type of performance: he can turn up like a rapper, slow down like a neo-soul singer or even just freestyle aside his band, like the charismatic emcee of a great jam band might. If anything is certain, it’s that D.R.A.M. has everything necessary to succeed. He’s already shifted the culture by inspiring some of the biggest artists in the world. Now, he has his own number one hit in the rear-view mirror, a studio LP in his discography and a headlining tour on the horizon.
Expect D.R.A.M. to keep stockpiling his clout, one puppy-dog smile at a time. Hip-hop will only be a brighter, happier culture if he does.