In July 2016, the R&B duo Dvsn found themselves in an exciting but precarious position. During only their second set of live dates, the pair were already opening for Drake and Future on the triumphant Summer Sixteen tour, which went on to become the highest grossing hip-hop jaunt of all time. But how would a crowd primed for deliriously exultant Drake/Future collaborations like "Jumpman" respond to Dvsn, whose best moments are more in line with emotive Nineties R&B than the music on today's airwaves?
"That [experience] allowed us to do two things," says Dvsn vocalist Daniel Daley. "To go out there and have to win the attention, appreciation and adoration of a bunch of people that were there to turn up, and to learn that they all have a spot in them that's OK staying in that night."
So it's been for Dvsn – the name is often styled "dvsn" — who have accumulated more than 150 million streams in the U.S. since debuting in November of 2015. Daley's partner in the group is Paul Jefferies, better known as Nineteen85, co-producer of mammoth Drake hits like "Hotline Bling." After releasing their debut, Sept 5th, last year with little warning, Dvsn return on Friday with Morning After. "Sept 5th in a way works like a mixtape; it's an introductory piece," Daley says. "This time around, we definitely have some records that we think have a bigger space to occupy."
This is hard-won confidence – initially Daley and Jefferies primarily kept their interest in R&B secret and focused on making rap. "Hanging out with crews of guys, it's not the coolest thing to say, 'Yo, I sing – have you heard that Boyz II Men record, that new Usher or Ginuwine?'" Daley explains. "And a lot of the stuff that we loved in R&B was way older than we were," Jefferies adds. "Most of the people we were hanging with weren't actually listening to that R&B."
The two connected in Toronto's music scene in the years before Drake released So Far Gone, the mixtape that set him on the path to stardom. It was a tough time for R&B in general: In 2007, only two R&B singles by artists who had not previously scored major hits crossed over to the pop airplay chart. As a result, rapping was the thing. "I knew Daniel as this guy who wrote raps," Jefferies says. "So I was like, 'Hey, do you want to try some of my beats?'" But one day, continues Daley, "he stumbled across me singing and was like, 'Yo, let's go with that.'"
Their commitment to R&B paid off when a mutual friend connected them with Noah "40" Shebib, co-architect of Drake's sound as well as a producer of standout cuts for Alicia Keys and Beyoncé. "She said, 'The one person in the city that knows music in the way that you guys do, the person you want to go to when you're talking about vocals and R&B, is 40,'" Daley remembers. "We met him, and we became those kids that 40 was always checking for."
"Dvsn is a part of music that has been missing for a long time," Shebib tells Rolling Stone. "[Their] shit is just good R&B music."
Drake's success meant 40 spent more and more time away from Toronto, but the producer maintained contact with Dvsn as the duo honed their songwriting, penning tracks for Jessie Ware and Jennifer Hudson. There were other placements, too, but "none that we're bragging about," according to Daley – in fact, most of the Daley/Jefferies cuts were rejected. "When we were sending songs to people, the A&R or the manager would respond back and be like, 'This sounds done – whose song did you send me? I was hoping for demos,'" Jefferies explains.
"That made us grow in a way that we wouldn't have been able to had we popped off immediately," he continues. "It gave us extra time. The last year or two, it didn't work exactly as we wanted to as songwriters, but we ended up developing way more as artists." It helped that Jefferies also had royalties flowing in during this period from co-producing Drake's "Hold On, We're Going Home" and Nicki Minaj's "Truffle Butter," both Top 20 hits on the Hot 100.
Daley credits Jefferies with deciding that the two should step out on their own as Dvsn. "As a producer, I was now known as the guy who made these huge pop hits, but as a songwriter pitching to R&B artists, there was a lot of second-guessing," Jefferies says. "I was like, I think I've proven I know what's going to be the next thing. Why keep putting it in someone else's hands and hope they're gonna do our song as good as we could?"
In 2015, Dvsn posted two luxurious ballads on SoundCloud: "With Me," a 6:58-long come-on swaddled in harmonies, and "The Line," which harked back to early-2000s D'Angelo. "[Those two tracks] didn't sound like anything [out at the time]," Jefferies says. "Without naming any names, some artists are making good R&B but they're not necessarily vocalists," explains Carl Chery, Head of Artist Curation for Apple Music, which has been a major supporter of Dvsn. "I liked Daniel's tone, his voice, his writing ability. It was like, this is what the groups I loved in the Nineties would come up with now."
Though Dvsn owe much to the Drake/40 hive mind, one of the most refreshing things about them was that they didn't sound like Drake at a time when there were already more than enough R&B acts attempting to build on his blueprint. As a result, not long after releasing their first two songs, "the phones were ringing, the emails were blowing up, and 40 was looking at us like a proud dad," Daley recalls. But the group initially kept Daley's identity a secret, hinting only that Dvsn was a Nineteen85 side project, a tried and true strategy for heightening listeners' curiosity at a time when all information is just a Google search away.
The pair inked a deal with OVO Sound – Drake's label, distributed through Warner Bros., and what Daley affectionately calls "the home team" – and released their debut album as an Apple exclusive four months later. "If you go back, I think the first exclusive we got was [Dr. Dre's] Compton," Cherry recalls. "Then it was [Drake and Future's] What a Time to Be Alive. Then it was Bryson [Tiller's Trapsoul]. We had done all these exclusives with big artists. I felt like doing it with them would be a hell of a stamp for an artist that was emerging at the time."
After a short tour on their own and a pair of jaunts with Drake, the duo are now ready with Morning After, which Daley predicts will "really surprise people." The live experience "made us a little bit more aware of how much freedom we had to pick up the tempo on some things," Jefferies says. "You have a whole group of people ready to move – you need to find different ways to make them react."
But the group is still happy to set a deliberate pace when necessary, matching Daley's direct expressions of desire with Jefferies' uncluttered production. New track "Body Smile" continues in the tradition of "The Line," leaving Daley to carry a melody across the empty spaces between each drum thunk, while "POV" samples the 1999 Maxwell ballad "Fortunate." (Maxwell calls Dvsn "my favorite band," commending them for "making a Nineties backdrop for the woke ones of the future.") "My job is always to let Daniel shine," Jefferies notes. "It's not for the production to be another singer. It's not having those things compete."
"There's times where I'm like, 'Why don't we trap this one up a bit?'" admits Daley. "[But] songs like 'Mood' or 'Body Smile' – no one wants to hear a million drums distracting from the passion that we put into records like that."
"We're separating from the pack," he adds, before reiterating the Dvsn mantra: "When they're all in the club, we might just stay in."