Like Kendrick Lamar, Brent Faiyaz has just released an album that holds a torch for its maker and its genre. Gorgeous and harrowing all at once, Wasteland is R&B at its devastating, existential best. Indran Paramasivam finds out how Faiyaz takes the crown.
Jay Z recently said this: “What makes a rapper great is how close he can bring you to his experience”.
Two of the biggest transmissions in hip-hop this year have proved him right in the best and worst ways: Kendrick Lamar’s teeming, vitriolic cry for help Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers and Drake’s puzzlingly half-cooked, apparently-‘house’-inspired about-turn Honestly, Nevermind. Both records are emblematic of the truths contained in Jigga’s nuance. A great rapper is, first and foremost, a storyteller. A great rapper tells a truth so fundamentally compelling, you believe them no matter how infeasible it is. When a great rapper does their thing, it feels like they’re right in front of you, talking directly to you. A great rapper is someone you root for – no matter what that entails.
Substitute ‘singer’ for ‘rapper’ and Brent Faiyaz, the ascendant Maryland native with a voice like molten honey, more than checks the right boxes. His recent sophomore album Wasteland, is, like Mr. Morale, a harrowingly detailed confessional of what it means to live on the furthest extremities of emotion, to feel at the brink of feeling and carry the burden of the accompanying trauma. Faiyaz goes the distance to show how much the idea of ‘drama’ minimises. Through his eyes, we see what drama really means: Standing at the brink, and being pulled apart in a hundred different directions.
Wasteland is an R&B album. That means it’s a presentation of its author’s most formidable veneer: His voice. That means his voice is the voice of God that breathes life into the words and worlds that unspool from it. Everything we know about it, we know from his voice. That means the album’s 64 minutes is a canvas upon which he expresses the simplest and profoundest thing he can ever give us, his voice. Wasteland is the best R&B album of 2022 because its author negotiates the why, what and how of all that definingly and masterfully. And it all starts and stops at his voice.
R&B is a truth-telling medium. It’s ruthless towards pretenders. It rewards the credibility it militantly insists upon. Faiyaz’s story is familiar but his telling of it is sublime, tragic and, most crucially, singular. He’s a cheater, a braggart, and, by all accounts, a wastrel squandering the prospect of a joyously stable life he could have with the woman carrying his child. A lazy person would brand him ‘toxic’ and leave it at that. But Faiyaz and his endeavor isn’t for the lazy. Layers need to be peeled to really enjoy what he’s doing, which is giving you a zoomed-in view of the contaminating effects of fame and wealth, the brutal allure of temptation, the tragic flaw of believing your own hype, even and especially in show business, when you kind of have to, and when all that is distilled into a potent cocktail, the ease with which we give in to our weaknesses engineered by the moment.
In Wasteland, the stakes are life and death. As much as being with someone new is irresistible, as much indulging in the pleasures of the dollar and flesh – pleasures that the business conditions you to believe you’ve ‘earned’ – philandering kills. There is a lot of alcohol and sex here, a lot of bad decisions. But this album is hyper-aware of its own morality. The battle between urge and conscience is a perennial one. Faiyaz reaches the highest level expression in his eradication of the distance between himself and the character he’s singing about. The sweet songs ring sweeter and the sad songs sting harder because it’s all autobiographical. The singer cannot escape the fate of his muse.
“VILLIAN’S THEME”, is the record’s opening shot. It features the angel-voiced Jorja Smith who doesn’t sing. What could’ve easily been an exquisite, pulversing duet is instead a spoken-word exchange about the larger questions around art, sex, and their impact on the life that practices them. The record’s first words are a (non-)rhetorical question: “Temporary euphoria, or a release?”
A few lines on, Faiyaz answers: “It's an escape / And I make music about that because I feel it gets to a point / Where you live so much of your life in that state because you work so damn much”. The feedback loop legitimised by the ‘culture’ is a dangerous one. It’s messy, an entanglement of entanglements whose momentum is ultimately choking. Amidst its foreboding – incriminating – soundscape, there’s rousing applause. That emphasis hits hard, but not as hard as the track’s final words, Smith’s airy-voiced clincher: “What purpose do your vices serve in your life?”
That is a question the record’s remaining songs answer in their own ways. Death, the climax, marks a point of redemption, which makes the arc a definably hopeful one, but that isn’t to say the journey isn’t mesmerising and transportive. There are sweat-drenched sex songs (“ALL MINE”, “GHETTO GATSBY”) and puff-your-chest-out songs to unravel your plumage to (“GRAVITY”, “ROLLING STONE”, “DEAD MAN WALKING”), but no one song is limited by its dominant theme. Every single item on the tracklist is incredibly prismatic; their surfaces glint with a multitude of details from expression to production.
The six-minute indictment “PRICE OF FAME” is a great tableau of that. Divided into two halves as it is, it deep-dives into the misleading glare of the spotlight but in a richly human manner that isn’t preachy or reductive. “I can't fake a smile, it's hard to wear / And I can't show no love, that shit too rare”, Faiyaz coos early on. But he also proclaims, “Oh, I ain't sellin' dreams to you, baby / That ain't my style / I never said that I was the best in the world / But I'm the best for you, girl (And so it's worth it), just stay for a while”.
That’s a full-circle moment back to square one. Square one being: “What purpose do your vices serve in your life?”
It helps that much of this album doesn’t have drums. So much of the momentum comes from Faiyaz’s voice alone. So urgent, so expressive, so sharp, so nimble, so powerful a force it is that it makes the words it carries do its bidding bewitchingly. When he’s unapologetic (“I'm probably faded when you see me on the TV, I can't help that / I'm just playing cards, I was dealt bad”) when he’s merciless (“I'm too wild for you to own”), when he’s being reflective (“Life moves fast when you do what you want / I guess I'm doing what I want), and when he’s down on his knees begging for forgiveness (“I look in the mirror / And I see the worst in parts of me”), it happens at barely a notch above a whisper, but it’s so richly, dashingly, gloriously pained.
Besides Jorja Smith, Tyler, the Creator and Drake are some big names that lend an assist here. But this is the rare modern pop record that doesn't need features. For all that the rest bring to the table, Faiyaz carries the weight of the world on his shoulders just and perfectly fine.
Can you forgive a sinner whose sufferings are, in large part, his own fault? Or do you stand in solidarity with a man just living by the hand he was dealt from a stacked deck?
Because it’s that good, Wasteland makes a strong case for ‘yes’ to both.