Shelley Massenburg-Smith’s memory is like a diary, in the sense that he can tie events that altered the course of his life to a specific date.
On January 6, 2020, after his team sat him down for an intervention, he decided that he was going to get sober and fight his addiction to liquor, cocaine, and Xanax. Nine days later, on January 15, 2020, he checked into rehab, where he lived in dorm-style quarters with “a bunch of middle-aged old white guys” for two weeks. On April 22, 2020, he was thumbing through Instagram stories when he saw a video of his manager Sean doing a resistance workout, running across a field dragging a sled. Inspired—and miffed that Sean hadn’t invited him—he began a fitness regimen that would result in shedding over 65 pounds.
“I was the comedian [in rehab]. I spoke my mind,” Shelley said over a Zoom call as he sat in his car outside an Atlanta studio and rolled up a blunt. “I was very vocal about, I’m not going to smoke weed during our program, but as soon as I get in the car to bounce, I’m gonna have an L already rolled up. Like I respect that part of it, but the weed is not my issue. I’m really here for the crazy amount of liquor, the crazy amounts of drugs. It just had to stop.”
In his early to mid-20s, Shelley lived in his hometown of Hampton, Virginia, working in shipyards and call centers to support his aspirations as a singer. His career took off in late 2014, when he released his breakout hit “Cha Cha,” which Drake later repurposed into the even bigger worldwide hit “Hotline Bling.” From 2015 to 2017, Shelley, who until recently operated under the moniker Dram, honed a smiley, goofy persona that stood apart from the rest of R&B. In the 2015 video for “Cha Cha,” he burst into a random family’s dining room wearing a 16-bit sombrero and turned a mundane dinner into a dance party. Beyonce posted a montage of herself vibing heavily to “Cha Cha” with the caption, “This song makes me happy!” Erykah Badu, writing to Shelley on Twitter, described “Cha Cha” as “very unique and raw… that underground magic force that sparks a seed to grow a tree.”
During that era, Shelley’s signature ten-thousand-watt smile would have made you think he was an avatar of happiness, but it would have been more accurate to say that he was an avatar of childhood—of the innocence, playfulness, and capacity for pure emotions that begin to die out around the time one stops believing in Santa Claus. On the cover of his 2016 debut Big Baby D.R.A.M., he posed alongside his goldendoodle, Idnit, beaming straight at the camera and into the viewer’s soul. The childlike wonder that radiated from this photograph also characterized his singular style. Whether he was rapping conversationally or leaping a register from full Teddy Pendergrass croon to falsetto, his sweet, nasal tone buoyed the album’s central theme, the effort to divine a love connection.
Videos for the album’s singles celebrated a youthful imagination at play. In “Cute,” Shelley served as hype man while Dram the Muppet courted a potential lover. In “Broccoli,” which has now gone platinum seven times over, he chilled in a creek with Lil Yachty. In the video for the improbable ragtime bop “Cash Machine,” he rode a tricycle and danced on a piano that a kid drew in chalk on his driveway, a la Tom Hanks in BIG. “I ain’t talking to you broke bitches I got money now,” he sang, “all a n-gga understand is *cash machine brrrr* since that check came in.”
Shelley said that his decision to change his stage name from Dram to his government name stemmed in part from his desire to reshape perceptions of him. After “Cha Cha” and “Broccoli,” he wanted a palette cleanser. “Those records, they took on a life of their own and they brought me immense success and many, many spoils,” he said. “It’s something that I can’t ever be ungrateful for. But also, I feel as though the core of what I do was being totally overlooked.”
On Big Baby D.R.A.M., Shelley used modern electronics as a metaphor for romantic chemistry. “Do you got wifi?” Shelley asked Erykah Badu in 2016. “Is there signal in your house? While we chilling on the couch?” That thin veil of innuendo has dissipated on Shelley FKA DRAM, a deliberately classical R&B new album of slow jams and even slower jams that’s designed to be performed and heard in an intimate lounge setting. “I wanted the project to feel like 1981—in 2021,” he explained. Dram could have been a sensation in The Golden Age of TikTok if he wanted, but Shelley hedges in the opposite direction (“Cooonsuuumaaating with a marrrried woomaaaaan”). Three duets, including one with Badu, whom Shelley calls his best friend in music, underscore the album’s extremely adult vibe. On the closer “Rich and Famous,” he rejects the high velocity and glitz of life as a celebrity (“Then my record plays, then I’m on way/ then I’m on display, then they go insane!”).
In the summer of 2017, Shelley went on tour with Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott, culminating two years of life on the road. “It really started to feel like a blur, and then like, it was a lot of drugs involved,” he said of that period. “And then when the dust settles, you’re like, what happened? When I’m talking about a blur, I’m talking about not being able to really remember what just happened last year. I was just running around in the lobby, as Peewee Longway would say.” The appetite for destruction Shelley had developed continued as he stepped away from the spotlight and got to work on his next album. “I would just sit in the cut and get fucked up for the most part,” he said. “I could drink almost like a fifth a day.”
Shelley said that since the intervention, support from his family, girlfriend, and team has made sobriety easy to manage.“I love my girl to death,” he said. “You know, she used to get fucked up with me, and the moment that I stopped, she stopped, too.” Shelley’s sobriety coincided, perhaps serendipitously, with the pandemic. In part out of boredom, he began cooking regularly for the first time in his life last March. “I picked up that pot and pan and I really just started cooking up shit,” he said. “It tasted good from the jump.”
Shelley found an audience for his culinary adventures on Instagram, where he shared not only the fruits of his labor but also his process, documenting the relatable adventures of an amateur chef learning on the fly and falling in love with cooking in real-time. During one memorable interlude, he emulsified raw chicken and made chicken nuggets from scratch. “I like to do a lot of duplication of items that you would get in fast food,” he said. “I like to do the crunchwraps. And if you do it all homemade, you don’t got all of that bullshit in it, and it tastes so good! You can put shrimp in it. Steak!”
Shelley’s music may be more grown-up, but on Instagram, his inner child remains visible. Earlier this month, he hopped on Instagram Live, lit up a joint, closed his eyes, opened his mouth into a giant grin, and undulated his body to the sounds of ‘80s Russian R&B. A couple days later, he resurfaced to document his attempt to boil a whole octopus and make East LA-inspired polpo salad—octopus, chopped shrimp, mayo, cream, onion, tomato, salt and pepper, everything but the bagel seasoning—and some Old Bay. (“It wouldn’t be me without it.”) He slapped it on a tostada and took a few rapturous, mukbang-worthy munches before flashing the camera at his girlfriend to get her verdict. Half-hidden behind her tostada topped with a giant heap of polpo salad, she took one bite, nodded approvingly, and offered a decisive thumbs-up. “Delicious,” she said.