The R&B duo DVSN’s new single, “If I Get Caught,” is an unapologetic, rampantly toxic anthem for cheaters (“You wouldn’t want me if you thought I never had hoes/Women like men other women like/That’s just something that every one know”), and its release sparked a firestorm. The lyrics seem suited for a harder-edged rap song, but here they’re counterintuitively wrapped in a smooth, Dru Hill-style croon complete with a men’s choir for background . The song is purposefully villainous, appealing to the male ego only to be dismantled in later songs on their new album Working On My Karma, a pseudo-concept record about young male relationship anxiety, with all its ups and downs. It’s a bold bait-and-switch move from DVSN’s usual more tender fare, but they seem confident in their ability to pull it off. It’s all part of their quest to bridge the genre’s traditionalist romance with the 21st-century musical landscape.The Toronto-based duo of singer-songwriter Daniel Daley and producer Nineteen85 (real name Anthony Paul Jeffries) craft a symphony of moody, soulful blues that keep you in a trance of reflective angst and nostalgic warmth over missed connections, long-ago love affairs, and the fights and make-ups that came with it.
DVSN formed in 2015, after Nineteen85 had built up a solid reputation as a producer, most notably as the mastermind behind some of Drake’s most pop-indulgent hits like “Hotline Bling” and “One Dance.” After signing to the rapper’s OVO label and getting a prominent feature on Views, DVSN has steadily built a strong, fervent following of R&B lovers through their mastery of deeply-felt emotional gravitas and cool, midnight pop-psychedelic sound.
Karma (which is co-produced by the formidable R&B duo of So So Def maestro Jermaine Dupri and the songwriter Bryan-Michael Cox) is one of DVSN’s better projects, with some songs that make you wistful and yearning for love, and others that cater to your inner savage. Daniel and Nineteen85 talked to GQ about making the album, working with the legendary Jermaine Dupri and Bryan-Michael Cox, and what they make of all that fuss over their ode to getting caught cheating.
GQ: A couple months have passed since you debuted “If I Get Caught,” and it created all that controversy on social media. How do you think people have adjusted to the song since?
Daniel Daley: I mean, the beautiful thing about social media and Twitter and all that stuff is… it all gets put into perspective as time goes. You always see people go so hard on one thing and then change up in like a day, two days, a week. Now they’re saying the complete opposite. So it just reminds you not to take everything so seriously.
I think in the beginning, it was a lot of shock, a lot of triggered people that have been… maybe affected by what the subject matter is, and then as the days go by, it’s like, “I can’t lie, it’s a bop,” or “Oh, it’s catchy. Oh, you know what? He is telling the truth.” Being able to see the narrative change is kind of just a reminder to have fun, don’t take everything so serious.
Do you think your honesty is something that people appreciate, or is trying to express these specifically male feelings contributing to the skewed perception of today’s R&B?
Nineteen85: I don’t know if we’ve ever done anything honest and worried about looking bad. ‘Cause we’re just like, the honest truth is the honest truth. But I think where things are at right now, people feel so forced to have an immediate opinion and an immediate reaction. But then as time has passed and you see people living with the record a lot more, I feel like a lot of the conversations have flipped to almost an appreciation like, “Yo, I appreciate the fact that DVSN is saying some of these things because these are conversations that need to be had,” where when it first came out it was, “I can’t believe these guys went this way. I always [traditional R&B] what they were gonna be representing forever. And now it’s like they switched up… ” I think once the shock wore off, a lot of people really just respected the fact that we even took it there.
Do you think the shock value is worth it?
Nineteen85: If it leads to real conversation, yes, which it did. If it doesn’t lead to any conversations and it’s just a marketing piece, then maybe not, because it is risky. But it did lead to great conversations and it did lead to people understanding where we’re at on this album. I think it was a big risk for us to even take that. It took us five, six months to even release it, ’cause we’ve had it for a while but we went through all the different cycles of, “Should this be first? Should it be something else?” After a while, all signs led to this one record.
When I first heard it, I thought, I get what they’re trying to do, but I don’t know if that should have been the first single. But then time passes and people remember that it created a moment more than what they were specifically mad about.
Nineteen85: It allowed us to have so many conversations we haven’t had with other releases. There’s just so many more eyes and ears now because there was so much shock to it. They’re now kind of like, “Oh, let me really get into this DVSN thing, maybe I do got to pay attention.” And it is unfortunate that that’s how people react to things that they deem as toxic or negative or whatever—’cause it’s not to say that it was done for that purpose, but it opened up the door for us to now continue the story and continue to unfold where [the album’s] character is at in his relationships and in his life. A lot of guys come to us like, “Yo, you guys said it in the way that I’ve always wanted to say it. I just couldn’t… I never had the words for that. Thank you.” That alone is such a rare moment with today’s R&B. So I think it was worth the risk.
Do you think that for as much as people complain about “toxic R&B,” there is something that draws people to keep listening?
Daniel: A hundred percent. And like I said, the record was never intended to be toxic. It was just maybe unapologetically honest. But when it comes to toxic R&B, if you look at all the songs that are championed, and the songs that people bother to discuss and talk about all day, a lot of times it’s songs that contradict [R&B tradition]. And that’s a beautiful thing to see because again, you don’t take everything so seriously because people just say things. People just kinda run with a groupthink narrative. If one person says something, then everybody jumps on and then afterwards, slowly everyone starts to think for themselves.
Nineteen85, as the official producer of the group, what was it like for Jermaine Dupri to join you?
Nineteen85: At first, I won’t lie, I was a little bit nervous ’cause I wasn’t sure how to fit alongside this super mega producer, but he made it really easy and I think I learned through working with him. He’s not nitpicking the production of stuff. To him it was all about: “What’s the best song, what’s the best record, what’s the best lyric, what’s the best way that we can really connect with people?” So once we got that out of the way, we hardly ever bumped heads because it’s just: If this works and it makes a song better, cool. If this doesn’t work, let’s take it out. And it doesn’t matter whether that’s me, him, [Bryan] Cox, anybody in the room. It was kind of very refreshing to see that his approach was so song-based and not necessarily like music or production-based.
You recorded most of this in Atlanta. Did recording in that very specific environment change the creative process at all?
Nineteen85: For sure. The environment of Atlanta, and also the environment of Jermaine’s studio and his headquarters—because people are leaving the club and coming straight to the studio, and so they’re fresh off whatever they just heard at Magic City or R&B Wednesdays with BCox, and you’re immediately getting that energy right in the studio as you’re playing new records, recording stuff, whatever it is. So I think [the album] definitely reflects the Atlanta culture more than maybe other places we’ve [recorded].
When I first heard “If I Get Caught,” I thought about Confessions, because Jermaine Dupri does a similar thing there, making a record poised to start a little controversy and rumor-mongering. Is that a thing that he ever talked to y’all about or devised a strategy around for y’all?
Nineteen85: Not at all, ’cause I don’t think he was making the record necessarily with us in mind. We just got to the studio, he opened the door, me and Daniel walked in, and at the same time we were just like, “Yo, what’s that song you’re humming?” And he’s like, “Y’all like this? All right, follow me.” And he just showed us what he had started with BCox and he had that hook. So it literally had nothing to do with him saying, “This is what you guys need to do, or this is a formula.” It was just a great moment that we were fortunate enough to walk in on and see the process unfolding. And then Daniel took it somewhere with his verses too.
R&B fans can be very particular about how they think the music should sound, probably more than any other genre. They feel very protective of it, so you end up having to serve a lot of different masters. Is that frustrating for y’all to have to hear about what you’re supposed to be doing or what you’re supposed to sound like all the time?
Daniel: Yeah. I mean, R&B is definitely a beloved thing and I think that what people are more mad about is the mirror that’s been put in front of them, which is the fact that art is imitating life right now, and where we are as humans and in relationships, we’re not in the greatest space when it comes to real connection and real love and real things that are pleasant all the time. We’re fed a lot more information than ever, a lot more violence, killing, murder, people cheating, infidelity. Everyone’s got 50,100 other people that they’ll walk away to in two seconds, waiting in their DMs. People aren’t staying through things, people are getting divorced. This is where we’re at.
So I think that the fact that R&B is actually starting to speak on where we’re at is where we’re getting the pushback. It’s like, yeah, when is the last time that you guys walked outside and just saw love in that pure form anymore? Where are you seeing people that are sticking through thick and thin? Where are the people that are making it through the obstacles, that are cheating but staying together, that are fighting but staying together, That’s where we’re at, and that’s a sad place to be… I even had a line on a song where I was like, “How do you find forever with somebody who won’t stay for it?”
Nineteen85: The expectation of R&B isn’t necessarily realistic for the times [laughs]. I think that’s just the best way to say it. Every other style of music has been allowed to grow and reflect things, but with R&B is so based on something that happened 20, 30 years ago. We’re not listening to rap [lovers] being as critical like, “Well in 1996, this is how they rapped.” Where with R&B, people are just like, “Yo, when Boyz II Men did this… ” That was decades ago. [laughter] That was so long ago…
Daniel: The funny part on top of all of it is that same [Boyz II Men] song now, people wouldn’t react to it the same way because they’re not emotionally connected like that. If we make a love ballad, it’s not gonna trend like “If I Get Caught.” Let’s be very clear about that, because we’ve done it. We’ve been one of the only people really championing the things that are in traditional R&B, one of the only people really championing vocals, real production, and keeping that true, while still progressing. We’ve been making love songs, sex songs, makeup songs, all these songs for the entire time. We’ve never had an album trend, we’ve never had one song just take over the conversation that quickly. And that’s a mirror because it’s like, if that’s what you guys are talking about more than anything else we’ve ever done, what does that say about you?
What do you think it says?
Daniel: That that’s what you guys are attracted to. Be honest about it, we dropped a song [“What’s Up”] right after, [we’re literally in the video] in the rain with Jagged Edge [laughs], doing the things that people are saying they’ve been missing in R&B, which is the remorse and the “I miss you” and the honesty and begging for somebody back. And as much as people love the song—and the song’s doing good and growing—I didn’t see the whole world have something to say about it from day one.
There is something about R&B that seems stuck in nostalgia and I don’t know how that changes exactly.
Daniel: Hey, you don’t have to change it. We can accept it. It’s just, we gotta be able to have elements of [nostalgia] and have things that are progressing it. And for people that love nostalgic music—without trying to toot our own horn—DVSN are the ones when it comes to having a nostalgic feel to our music. I don’t think there is another R&B act out right now that has more of that than we’ve had in our discography so far.
Well, I guess what I’m saying is that artists have to be allowed to experiment and adapt and change. People think that the issue with R&B is, “They’re not doing what they used to do and that’s why it’s not as successful.” But actually, it’s probably not as successful because it’s the only genre that’s not allowed to adapt to the youth of whatever generation is currently listening.
Daniel: I do agree with that partially, but even with that said, let’s be honest about it. It’s not doing what it used to do, because the people that are doing the things that it used to do are the ones that are the least talked about. Think about anyone that’s leading in R&B right now. Is it because they sound like what they sounded like in 1993, 1994, ’96? No, they’re the ones that are probably the furthest from that. The people that are the ones that are actually making love songs are the artists that are being looked over. I think there has to be a happy medium, which is what’s kind of our mindset going into this album, we’re trying to progress it by adding back some of the things that are traditional. And “What’s Up” is an example of that, with Jagged Edge, a sound that we’ve heard, but still being brand new, as far as how we’re talking and coming about it.
How did meeting Jagged Edge come about?
Daniel: Just one night after an R&B party, they decided to stop in [JD’s] studio and I happened to be there, and they were like, “We’re fans. We heard the project you did with Ty Dolla $ign, you hard, let me hear something.” And they heard “What’s Up” and they were like, “Yo, this is one of those timeless R&B songs that can literally play forever, man. You need to feel extremely proud of this ’cause this song right here, like, I wanna just go home and just listen to this all day.” And I just felt honored by that. And it wasn’t until weeks later, we were completely finished with the song, and 85 was like, “Yo, what if we put Jagged Edge on there… Let them come on and harmonize and hit some of those classic vibes in the back since they love the record so much ? It could help bring out that BCox piano that we put in there.” And it’s been really dope being able to have legends involved and as excited about a new age record. That says a lot to me ’cause those guys are super writers themselves.
Nineteen85: Yeah. And to touch on JD’s influence of like mixing the old with the new, even just the way he told us to use the section that Daniel’s singing right off the top, technically it’s like an intro to the song, but it was gonna be a bridge at one point. And he’s like, “Nah, y’all should have that right at the front. Before the beat drops, let them know what they’re getting into.” And that’s so simple… It’s not to say that anybody can’t do that now, it’s just people don’t do it. It’s just like the small things that just change the listeners’ experience with the record.