With legends like Jermaine Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox in their corner, DVSN is fighting against the idea R&B is dead with their new album Working on My Karma — even if it involves some controversy.
Before Daniel Daley ever sang a note on an official record, he wanted to be known as a rapper. “Singing was not cool to me,” says Daley, laughingly. “I didn’t want to seem soft.” He rapped under the moniker D-Money, reserving his vocal skills for family and trusted friends. Occasionally, he would enter a local talent show. “My first talent show, when I was a kid, was me singing [Jagged Edge’s] ‘Promise’,” he says. Now, four studio albums into a celebrated career as part of the duo DVSN – alongside longtime collaborator and producer Paul Jefferies, commonly known as Nineteen85 – Jagged Edge has a feature on their single “What’s Up” from their latest album, Working on My Karma. “To have them on that record is crazy.”
Daley and Jeffries are in the middle of a whirlwind promo run in New York City, making stops everywhere from Ebro in the Morning to Sway in the Morning. The discussion has been led by a dissection of the virally contentious lead single “If I Get Caught Cheating.” With the announcement of their Working on My Karma world tour around the corner – which had already begun leaking to the blogs – the Toronto-based R&B duo have two days to deemphasize the sharper edges of the track and invite both fans and critics alike to give the entire album a listen, which is a carefully sequenced piece of work exploring the ups and downs of navigating love, commitment, temptation, and regrets. While the topic matter is far from novel for the pair, they have found themselves a bit on the defensive, asking listeners to have faith in them as they present these motifs in their music as the story unfolds, but also embrace them taking their tender and engrossing sound in a bit of a different direction. DVSN is gambling big on serving the market on nostalgia for R&B’s heyday at the turn of the century. Where their debut Sept 5th was all about the vibes, Working on My Karma is a clear bridge back to a more classic time in R&B, replete with stirring bridges, carefully curated samples, commanding storytelling, and the advisory guidance of the legendary Jermaine Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox to assist in smoothing out the rough edges.
Canada has a legacy in R&B and soul that stretches decades. Hamilton, Ontario native Harrison Kennedy became part of Detroit-based soul group Chairmen of the Board in the ‘70s while also contributing to records like Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Powerhouse artists like Deborah Cox and Tamia made their stamp in history with chart-topping hits in the ‘90s and early aughts. And underrated talents like Melanie Fiona earned a Grammy nomination in 2010 for her single “It Kills Me.” However, it wasn’t until the breakout success of Drake and his establishment of the OVO Sound that a more formal infrastructure and pipeline of the Toronto sound began to form in the 2010s, which DVSN found themselves a part of.
When the pair first released the first few records from Sept 5th (named after the date they laid their first track for the project), they were nameless figures behind a cryptic arithmetic symbol. Their identities were so tightly protected that not even Drake knew they were the faces behind the group, even though he already had a working relationship with them as songwriters and producers. “We assumed it was just a known thing in the crew,” says Nineteen85. “Mind you, when this is happening, I’m living at his house in LA. Like, I’m living with the guy, working on [Views]. And he’s telling 40 [Noah Shebib] like ‘Yo, what do you think? What should we do?’” Not long after, they ended up signing with OVO as artists.
By the time DVSN formalized themselves as a pair, Nineteen85 had already begun to make waves as a producer, having landed credits on Drake’s “Hold On, We’re Going Home” and “0 to 100/The Catch Up,” experiences that would prove formative in helping Nineteen85 establish the formula to DVSN’s soundscape. “I would make these three minute masterpieces that had like 10 different changes and the chords would switch and do whatever, and 40 would hit me with like, “Yo, that eight second loop at the beginning, crazy. I sent it to Drake, loves it,’” says Nineteen85, chuckling. “That would happen so many times … literally every time 40’s like, ‘Yo, there’s like a little thing here at the end of it, can you just loop that for me and send me three minutes of that?’” He began to realize that perhaps he was overthinking things a bit in his production style, refining that for his contributions to OVO and the beats that he worked on for DVSN.
While Daley may no longer rap, the lingering DNA of his time in Toronto’s rap scene is still very much evident in his approach to songwriting. This is evident on the single “What’s Up,” where he crafts the following disarmingly frank multisyllabic rhyming couplet: “When I say ‘Love, I’m in love,’ ain’t no fuckin’ shame in it/That ain’t your name if my last name ain’t in it.” In many ways, “What’s Up” serves as a sharp lens into Daley’s journey as an artist and songwriter, and DVSN’s evolution. The track was even supposed to be their lead single. But it ended up being outshone by a song that created buzz no matter where they tested it out: the hotly debated “If I Get Caught Cheating,” a defiant bait-and-switch hook that disposes with Daley’s trademarked crooning for an everyday choir of men chanting plainspokenly about infidelity. The hook was originally composed by Dupri – Daley and Nineteen85 walked into the studio and heard him working on the track and immediately got excited – with Baiden, Nelly, Polow Da Don, Cox, and others contributing to the sing-along medley of voices. Daley began working on his verses, which weren’t intended to rationalize cheating, but the insecurities that can arise in a relationship.
“Once Daniel finished the song, they started playing the song for people [in focus groups],” says Dupri. “The reaction that people had was good and bad…I just paid attention to that activity, because I feel like if you can jar that out of that many people, then you know that was gonna be something that happens, almost like a domino effect to the rest of the world.”
Despite the intense backlash that arose on social media once “If I Get Caught Cheating” finally dropped, the consensus was that they had found lightning in a bottle: a catchy hook on a hot-button issue with an iconic JAY-Z sample to tie it all together. During the NYC press run, Daley had to recite the lyrics to the hook no less than five times. “What I misjudged was, I thought that what would happen is that what was in these [focus groups] is what was gonna happen when we dropped it,” Daley recalled. “I’m realizing, ‘Oh, when I drop a song, they don’t have a big room full of people. They just have me’…I’m like, ‘Oh shit. You hate me.’”
The topics of infidelity, loyalty and trust are common fodder in R&B. Dupri and Cox’s work on the best-selling male R&B album of the 21st century, Usher’s Confessions, is a testament to that fact. Generally, however, the topic tends to be approached from a tenor of atonement or penitence. DVSN’s choice to take a more indignant route was a marked divergence from that standard; even the JAY-Z sample used for the track (“Song Cry”) was a remorseful single from his canon of hits. “It’s how loud and proud it was said, which we knew,” Daley says. “If it was just me singing, you guys would have taken it completely differently.” Despite the heavy criticisms – and even a response track from Kandi Burruss and Tiny – Daley notes that performances of the contentious track are always warmly received by fans, showing me a video clip of an appearance he recently made where women are shamelessly singing along to a song that was heavily maligned as toxic.
The nature of raw R&B imbued with the authenticity of their personal experiences is not limited to making waves on the internet, however. With an album that unabashedly talks about yearning, misgivings, ego, and lessons learned, there are bound to be ripple effects that land closer to home. Both Nineteen85 and Daley relayed examples of having to explain lyrics to the women in their lives, both past and present, as a byproduct of infusing a morsel of true experiences into their sonic universe. “Anyone that’s had any interactions with us on a personal level, kind of wants to look over it with a microscope,” Daley says, resigning himself to that being an expected byproduct of the musical style they chose. Fortunately, there have been some clarifying and healing conversations that have come through it. “The second verse [of “Daniel’s Interlude”], I’m addressing my relationship with my mom and how it got strained at one point with her and husband,” Daley clarifies before going on to share that his stepfather reached out to him after hearing the song. “I literally just got an Instagram message from him the other day apologizing to me,” he says. “For me to be able to say, ‘It’s OK, I’ve moved on, I forgive you for that.’”
Part of that healing extends to the musical scene. DVSN aims to vault past the neverending inquiries over the health of R&B as a genre, and make inroads into standing in the cultural lineage that offered them a platform. “Some of our greats are in a place where they kind of feel like our generation doesn’t look to them the same way,” says Daley. “I want them to not feel that way, and I want them to know, at the very least, we are not that. We fully acknowledged our musical DNA and our musical lineage.
“People now, they’re thinking about the biggest hip-hop person,” Daley continues. “People used to work with their greats. Usher would go make his album, he’d go see Babyface. He’d go see Jermaine Dupri…people aren’t doing that any more. People are making their whole records in their own space, secluded from people that can help.”
For DVSN, Jermaine Dupri served as a wizened veteran and mentor with a youthful spirit to match, helping the duo fill in the blanks on lyrics and beats they were continuously fine-tuning. “I went there wanting him to just write a song for me. Give me ‘Nice and Slow’,” Daley says. As their working relationship evolved, Jermaine served in much more of an advisory capacity, a once-in-a-time opportunity for Nineteen85 as a producer. “He’ll literally fall asleep on top of the desk, knocked out for like two hours, hear us going over something in his sleep, wake up and be like, ‘Y’all fixed that like an hour ago, I heard that,’” Nineteen85 recalls in equal parts amusement and amazement, noting that Dupri and Cox made it very comfortable to work with them. “’I’ve worked with other producers that are just like, ‘No, don’t touch my stuff… I don’t want to offend him, so I’m like, ‘Eh, I’m not going to do too much.’ He was like, ‘No, pull it apart.’”
If given the opportunity, both of them would like to continue to expand their musical soundscape under the guidance of R&B’s foremost visionaries, with the one-two combo of Timbaland and Missy Elliot sitting high on that list of dream collaborations. Daley had a chance to speak with Timbo at Missy Elliot’s birthday party, which the industry titan took to Instagram to acknowledge him for afterwards. “I’m sitting there trying to tell him like, we need you in the game,” Daley stresses. “Come back and do exactly what Tim does, which is be off the wall, have crazy drum patterns, have a bounce that’s just infectious…I know you probably feel like most people can’t write to that stuff. But I’m one of the ones that can figure it out.”
In expanding their sound, Daley and Nineteen85 also help to quell the idea that R&B is anywhere close to dead (“Puff doesn’t even believe that,” says Daley, convinced that it was a marketing tactic to promote his own R&B efforts), although they do agree that it is in critical need of a “vibe shift” away from a modality that emphasizes disposable ambient experiences over song craft. But for now, the pair are focused on seeing how Working on My Karma does. It is easy to understand why they are certain that they are heading in the right direction though, having consistently been affirmed in their artistic choices by some of the greatest talents in contemporary R&B. Now, all that remains to be seen is if their fans are willing to follow them into uncharted territory and the next phase of their career. “This might be to our detriment, but I don’t think that we look at each other as people with limitations,” Daley states, with a hubris that is undeniably contagious. “We can figure out a way to do it.”
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