DRAM has never been afraid to be stupid. Whether he’s striving to make money, find love, or smoke debilitating amounts of weed, he always performs for the cheap seats, his powerful vocal range lampshade with goofy exuberance. His ingenuity changed slightly during his first two albums. His first feature film, 2016 big baby drams, had more than his fair share of crowd hits, but smoky, intimate outliers like “WiFi” and “Monticello Ave” proved he didn’t always feel the need to swing for crossover hits. By 2021 DRAM Shelley FKA, the Virginia crooner and at-time rapper had changed his name and fully committed to adult contemporary R&B and soul. It was the most mature it had ever sounded on record, but not enough to forgo a slight layer of shenanigans, whether cheeky interludes or the occasional moan (“Let me touch your soul before to touch your skin”). On What happened was…, DRAM is back with its old name and new sensibilities, a re-introduction that solidifies its love for all things sweet and sappy.
As a singer, DRAM oscillates between a velvety tenor and a piercing falsetto reminiscent of Ronald Isley if he only put forward trap-soul playlists. Her voice simmers and soars over the hooks of “Ride or Die” and “Let Me See Your Phone,” her upper register chirping selling reassuring coos to a lover and threats to invade another’s privacy with equal charisma. Vibrato has always been a secret weapon in the best DRAM songs, but its application is more nuanced now, letting it seep into the cracks of the music instead of piercing it through the foundation – the rumble throughout songs. like “Best That I Got” and “Reflections” is fluid and inviting. He is a more experienced singer than before, eager to flesh out the essential elements of his technique. The stacked vocal harmonies on “3’s Company” and “Can’t Hold You Down” have the texture of Voodoo-era D’Angelo, and his voice generally has a richer, more confident tone.
What happened was… aims to refine the DRAM formula initially established on Shelley FKA DRAM. Each song is a loose narrative about the different stages and forms of love: one-night stands and encounters with the One; ruptures and make-ups; closed-door affairs and proclamations worthy of JumboTron. He’s been through it all, and he approaches each scenario with playboy confidence and loving seriousness. “3’s Company” is a funk ballad in which DRAM succumbs to his partner’s request for a threesome; it plays out with just enough melodrama not to read like a soap opera (“Though I’d rather it be you and me/But I don’t really mind ’cause it ain’t new to me/It’s just that it reminds me of who I used to be”) The silly, laid-back charm comes through in interludes peppered with Super Saiyan sound effects and SpongeBob jokes, and brief stints in the rap (“Soul to Take” , “Big Baby DRAM”). Despite all his growth, DRAM is still a child at heart.