Home Music Shelley FKA DRAM: Shelley FKA DRAM

Shelley FKA DRAM: Shelley FKA DRAM

Shelley FKA DRAM’s smile is so bright it burns in the memory like an imprint on a phone screen. Maybe you remember him beating the shit out of Godzilla on the cover of his Gahdamn! EP, which gave the world “Cha Cha,” or beaming with his dog on his debut Big Baby DRAM, which gave the world “Broccoli.” Like Lil Yachty, his sparring partner on that single, Shelley rode those singles to the top of a brief, immediately pre-Trump rap wave that espoused joy as an implied antidote to gathering clouds. Then he disappeared as clouds began to gather in his own life: a severe drug and alcohol problem that landed him in rehab in 2019. But one of the most indelible images from his brief moment in the sun is the key to understanding his new, self-titled second album: the singer standing in front of a band on Tiny Desk Concert, beaming and slipping into a trance as he seemed to tread water with his arms in midair.

Shelley FKA DRAM consists chiefly of romantic, late-night soul songs that move like molasses, driven forward by the same kind of rimshot tick ?uestlove used to guide D’Angelo’s Voodoo down the Styx. Rather than a buoyant avatar hurtling through life at video-game speeds, the Shelley on this album is a monolithic, immobile presence at the center of the mix, much like how his frequent collaborator Erykah Badu presents herself, and he allows everything else to swirl around him like waves breaking against a mountain. The tempo and spirits only lift during “Rich & Famous,” the final track, set up by a monologue that implies it’s meant to be taken as a bonus track—and it’s just as well, as it’s the weakest track on the album. The nine that precede it give the unmistakable impression of a man who’s decided exactly what he wants to do and how he wants to present himself. He was always a better singer than a rapper, and Shelley not only understands this but understands his secret weapon: that light quaver in his voice that lets you know he’s kidding just a little bit and makes his music sound joyful even when it’s outwardly serious.

He’s tasteful enough to let his voice add most of the humor and warmth to what’s in most other aspects a smart, grown-up modern soul album in the vein of Voodoo, Maxwell‘s Urban Hang Suite, or Badu’s New Amerykah Part Two. But he can’t resist a few jokes. On “Remedies” he talks about inventing a time machine with a giggle audible at the edge of his voice, and “Married Woman” plays like a close-up of a comic hero’s face as he’s realized he’s made a big goof by philandering. If anything, I wished this album was a little less jocular. He has no qualms about looking ridiculous, as the cloying “Beautiful” makes clear. But the strings on that song and the Badu duet “’93 Acura Vigor,” plus the monologues that bridge most of these tracks, just faintly suggest the baroque ambitions of Isaac Hayes. Even as good as it is to see an artist of such skill take himself so un-seriously, the singer would benefit from just a little more Hayesian sangfroid. Shelley is so likable he doesn’t need to force it.

Summary
He’s tasteful enough to let his voice add most of the humor and warmth to what’s in most other aspects a smart, grown-up modern soul album.
70 %
RADIANT SOUL
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