In 2020, DRAM faced a big decision.
After four years of success following breakout hits like “Cha Cha” and “Broccoli,” the then-31-year-old artist decided to make a career-altering change. He was grateful for the response to those records, which catapulted him to international stardom, but he felt his versatility was being overshadowed by fans’ perceptions of his early songs. So, in an attempt to achieve more creative freedom, he did one of the most significant things an artist could do midway through his career: He changed his name.
Most of us have no say in the names we carry—they’re given to us at birth. In music, though, it’s a little different. Artists get to choose their stage names, which is one of the most important steps in establishing an identity.
Inspiration can come from anywhere—from a government name to a very specific reference to a particular moment in the artist’s life. Even with the freedom to choose their own names though, many artists end up wanting to change their monikers, often in the middle of their careers. The reasons vary, from avoiding controversy to exploring a new creative direction.
Changing a name after an artist has already found moderate success can be risky, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. In fact, there is a lot of power in a name change when executed correctly, and we’ve seen many successful transformations in rap over the years.
For some artists, the changes are small. In 2002, Bow Wow announced he was dropping the “Lil” in front of his name, explaining, “I’m getting older now and it’s too many Lils.” Meanwhile, Diddy has undergone a long line of name changes, from Puff Daddy to P. Diddy to Diddy. In 2017, he even announced his new moniker would be Brother Love, although he has not released music using the moniker. Dropping a “Lil” or shortening a name are simple stylistic choices that can signal a new chapter in an artist’s career, and small alterations like these hardly affect an artist’s trajectory. But there are more drastic changes that are intended to cause a larger impact.
Snoop Dogg, for instance, has changed up his name to mark a new stylistic direction. In 2013, he adopted the stage name Snoopzilla in support of his funk album 7 Days of Funk. Shortly after, he changed his name once again to Snoop Lion, which came about after he embraced the religion of Rastafarianism and started working on a reggae album inspired by Bob Marley.
More recently, DRAM officially switched back to his government name Shelley. He once described his early career style as “trappy go lucky,” centered around catchy raps and upbeat trap sounds. He tells Complex now, though, that his name change “was symbolic to the changes that I made in my musical direction, as well as my lifestyle in general.”
The name DRAM, he says, came with a certain stigma, which put a strain on his ability to express his versatility as an artist. “I felt like a wide range of styles and sounds were being overshadowed by the few records of mine that were extremely popular,” he explains. “As grateful as I am for the success of those records, I still thought many people judged the totality of my art based on those records alone.”
Under the name Shelley, he was able to explore a new sound, free of expectations. In April 2021, he dropped his debut self-titled album under the new stage name. He says he always wanted to title his sophomore album after his birth name, but the change also signified an evolution of his sound. Shelley FKA DRAM is an R&B album full of smooth and intoxicating love songs, a departure from his fun and uptempo tracks released as DRAM. Despite the major change in direction nearly five years after his meteoric rise, DRAM hasn’t received backlash from critics and fans. In fact, the reaction has been quite the opposite. The name change, in combination with the high quality of his self-titled album, has actually attracted overwhelming support and attention. It has drawn critical praise, and been featured in a handful of “Best of” lists so far this year, including ranking No. 3 on Complex’s “Best Albums of 2021 (So Far)” list.
“I felt like a wide range of styles and sounds were being overshadowed by the few records of mine that were extremely popular. As grateful as I am for the success of those records, I still thought many people judged the totality of my art based on those records alone.” – Shelley
“I’m both surprised and ecstatic from the overall responses from my fans as well as my peers,” he says. “It seems as though this musical path that I’m on is exactly what my day ones have been waiting for from me.”
Though he’s received an outpouring of support from fans, he’s still in the midst of a transitional period. The name change process doesn’t happen overnight. Right now, on streaming platforms, his music appears under the name “Shelley FKA DRAM,” which allows him to show up in search engines under either name, but also acquaint fans with the idea of his new name.
For some artists, the decision to change their names midway into their careers comes as a reaction to controversy. In early 2011, 2 Chainz changed his name from Tity Boi following accusations of sexism. The rapper repeatedly denied the criticism, saying, “Tity Boi is not derogatory towards women, I didn’t make it up, I didn’t get it from a titty-sucking contest or anything like that.” The name, he explained, actually came from his family who called him “Tit” as a nickname growing up. At the time, he had already found some success using the name, thanks to his single “Duffle Bag Boy” as part of the group Playaz Circle. Ultimately, the rapper avoided further criticism by going with 2 Chainz, though. His first studio album under the moniker, Based on a T.R.U Story debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and included major singles “No Lie” with Drake, “Birthday Song” featuring Kanye West, and “I’m Different.” Of course, it’s impossible to determine for a fact whether the name change was the only factor in the success of his career years later, but distancing himself from controversy couldn’t have hurt.
ATL rapper Latto also received backlash over her original stage name Mulatto, which is a term used when referring to a person of mixed white and Black ancestry. Some fans accused the rapper of perpetuating the negative connotations associated with the word, which is often used as a racial slur. Eventually, she decided to change her name in May 2021 in response to the controversy, shortening it to Latto. “You gotta hear each other out… If you know those aren’t your intentions and that’s how it’s being perceived, it’s like, why not make a change or alter it?” she said in a January 2021 interview.
The feedback to her name change has greatly differed. Some fans appreciated the switch, applauding Latto’s mature response. Others stated that the name was too close to the original and essentially held the same negative connotation. Still, she’s moving forward with the change. At this time, we have not yet witnessed the full impact that Latto’s name change will have on her commercial success. Before the change, she was fairly new to the game, having only released one studio album, Queen of Da Souf, in 2020. Her most popular track at the time was “Bitch From da Souf,” which peaked at No. 95 on Billboard’s Hot 100. Latto previously suggested that the decision to change her name might negatively affect her business deals, but it could also have the opposite effect and potentially benefit her in the long run. Since the name is so similar to the original, it shouldn’t be difficult for fans and brands to recognize her. And Latto’s willingness to listen to fans’ outcry should draw in more business rather than deter it, as she distances herself from the controversial name.
So much of an artist’s success and longevity in this business depends on an ability to adapt to their changing interests and to the world around them. So, if that means changing a name to not offend others or to signal a new artistic direction, it’s often the right decision to make. And artists like Shelley and 2 Chainz are showing just how fruitful it can be to take the leap and change names in the middle of a career.
“Knowing yourself and your brand is very key to succeeding in everything you do,” Shelley tells Complex. “Once you achieve that, you’ll be able to know what does and what doesn’t work for you.”