(Trigger Warning: Brief Mention of Suicide and Abortion)
Arriving in Wasteland
In the recess between opulence; the penthouses and bars he spends his nights in, and absurdity; the failures and shocks associated with the pandemic and recent political developments, Brent Faiyaz finds a wasteland. Dark, paradoxical, and constantly changing, in the liminal space Faiyaz finds himself occupying, it’s hard to decide who you are and harder still to know who you should be. Released on July 8th, RnB musician Brent Faiyaz’s sophomore album, ‘Wasteland’, is as self-exploratory as it is outwardly probing.
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‘Wasteland’ is noticeably more serious, honest and mature than his previous effort, ‘Sonder Son’, but consequently it’s not such an easy pill to swallow. No more does gentle peppy Spanish guitar accompany Brent’s soft, fluttering vocals; he now sings over heavier bass and more synthetically derived instrumentals, while some of the softer songs he’s associated with are displaced by an array of some of the most brutal and graphic skits you will have heard in a while. This is why ‘Wasteland’ will likely make a bigger splash than ‘Sonder Son’, but also why much of the record is not as instantly enjoyable or as inviting to relisten to. This is not to say, of course, that Faiyaz doesn’t still supply a few catchy numbers, but certainly, it seems that the goal behind this record might lie beyond the purely musical or financial.
Exploring in Wasteland
Nevertheless, the album certainly has its musical highlights, with some substantial creative strides made. In ROLLING STONE, for instance, Faiyaz employs a gorgeously lo-fi beat and a very dynamic melody. This lo-fi aesthetic can be seen frequently across the album, complementing the more stripped-back atmospheres of some of the songs. On the other end of the scale, many tracks are produced in a less stripped-back manner without compromising any sense of cohesion. ROLE MODEL and LOOSE CHANGE are just two examples of superbly layered songs that add some complexity while not compromising the consistency of the album. This cohesion is partly thanks to the fact that connecting them to the rest of the record, these two songs make resourceful and conspicuous use of strings. The strong thematic ties between all the tracks on the project also help link it all together; the lo-fi numbers, the more heavily produced cuts, and even a few markedly psychedelic efforts.
DEAD MAN WALKING, one of the album’s singles, is one of the more notable locations for another of Brent’s experiments. Instead of ending the song where one might expect, Faiyaz continues the song long past its assumed expiry date and adds something entirely unexpected to the track, with plucked guitar mutedly coming to the fore after the vocals are finished. Similarly, epilogued is ROLE MODEL, an underrated track on the album, which is not only catchy and rhythmically brilliant but is also signed off in a triumphant fashion with a rather unusual string crescendo. A neat little footnote to the song, such little flourishes massively adds to the character of this LP.
Faiyaz has carefully thought about his features, too. Exploring how to use features seems to be a real strength of Faiyaz’s music, getting the best out of them and often in an unanticipated fashion. For example, Alicia Keys’ deep-toned and icy rap verse was a real gift to GHETTO GATSBY, an otherwise comparatively uninteresting song. Perhaps even more impressive, however, is Drake’s verse. Many listeners will have been dreading WASTING TIME when they saw it in the track listing, alongside its associated feature; the man behind the profoundly unlistenable ‘Certified Lover Boy’ (2021) and ‘Honestly, Nevermind’ (2022).
But WASTING TIME seems to stand as proof of what Drake can still do. Although by no means the best offering on the album, it would be hard to claim it wasn’t up there. I’d be the last to declare myself a Drake fan, but it appears that with some genuinely new ideas in terms of beat and song structure, Drake can still perform when it counts with his impressive flow and iconic voice. All of this is not even to mention what may well be the best song on the album, the previously released single GRAVITY, in which Faiyaz orchestrates a reunion between the historically fruitful partnership of Tyler, the Creator, and Steve Lacy, who previously collaborated on Tyler’s album ‘Flower Boy’.
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Of course, this release does not represent the first time that Faiyaz has experimented but never has he done so in such a focused and cohesive way. Naturally, not all of the things Faiyaz tries on ‘Wasteland’ are successes; the meme-like airhorn on GRAVITY is unnecessary and offputting, and SKIT: OBLIVION, although intentionally shocking, is quite a bit too much so. But taking the rough with the smooth, it’s hard not to admire the ingenuity of much of this album.
Reflecting in Wasteland
Perhaps the greatest strength of ‘Wasteland’, beyond anything else, is its honesty. From the start Faiyaz confesses himself as the villain; the opening track is named VILLAIN’S THEME and seems to parody MF DOOM’S track Supervillain Theme. Instead of sounding like a theme from an old comic book film, it is a strange and confusing mess of creeping, nervous, murky synths, distorted voices, laughter, and applause. Faiyaz’s theme, unlike DOOM, is not the herald of a powerful supervillain, but frantic murmurings from the inside of his head. Nevertheless, and much like DOOM’s Supervillain Theme, this opening track hints at what’s to come. Throughout ‘Wasteland’, Faiyaz will almost manically vacillate between hedonistic toxic ramblings and moments of consciousness, where it’s all weighed up and considered.
In PRICE OF FAME, for example, Faiyaz questions his integrity. Beginning with a catchy trap beat but switching in the middle of the song to an idyllic, airy, fairy-tale melody without drums, the lyrics seem to contradict the music behind them. Faiyaz sings, “I swear it isn’t everything (everything) / (Glitz and glam) It isn’t everything”, later repeating incessantly the phrase “if you feel what I feel / you know that I’m real”. With the dream-like music backing this section, it feels like Faiyaz is trying in vain to convince himself of these things, but that he’s not sure – maybe it is everything? Maybe he really is living the dream? “Oh, I ain’t sellin’ dreams to you, baby”, he continues, “but I’m the best for you, girl”. Once again, Faiyaz seems slightly unconvinced by his own words. We are left to watch on in uncertainty, too, not knowing whether he is indeed ‘real’ or not.
Nonetheless, it won’t be long before in SKIT: OBLIVION, we are forced to listen in, uncomfortably close, to Brent cheating with a girl in his car. An unwanted foray into ASMR, we eavesdrop on flirting, then hear kissing as if inches from our ears, until finally we hear her unzipping his pants. Faiyaz is clearly fully aware of his toxicity, but he just can’t help it. “There’s just so much shit going on in the world at large. But I still get caught up in the vices. I still want to buy some shit. I still want to fuck bitches. I still want to get wasted every other night. So I’m gonna make songs about at least how I feel in the moment so I can figure out what the fuck I really want to do”, he explained to Rolling Stone. This kind of honesty is quite incredible to listen in on. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable, but more frequently it’s powerful.
No better is this embodied than in DEAD MAN WALKING, where Faiyaz’s hedonistic, sordid words are sung in a jarringly soft and thoughtful voice. Hearing “I dropped thirty on this room, we ain’t gon’ sleep for shit” pronounced in such a way gives the listener a sense of Brent’s genuine happiness within the materialism of the song, but also a hint of his mourning for what this mode of living sacrifices.
In ADDICTIONS, perhaps the album’s most reflective chapter, the structure of the album and indeed Faiyaz’s own internal debate is played out in the design of the song and its lyrics. “Maybe it’s the love, the drugs, the weed, the pussy / Maybe it’s all the above, maybe I don’t need a hug / Maybe I’m just fucked up”, goes the refrain. Trying to figure out the source of his problem, Brent can’t decide between blaming it on the obvious candidates or resorting to nihilism and absolving himself of blame. It’s not hard to see how this kind of oscillation between conscience and resignation is paralleled by the album as a whole. Similarly, the song’s melody consists of a repetition of a series of ascending notes, followed by descending chords: just as Faiyaz continually ascends to self-awareness before descending into vice again.
The album and its constant swells and recessions all come to a head in SKIT: WAKE UP CALL, where we hear, in excruciating fashion, Faiyaz’s girlfriend break down over the phone about how she feels she can’t look after her unborn child and how she’s unhappy with how he’s treated her. Shakily, she threatens to kill herself, telling him he’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to her. He jumps in the car and races to try and get to her in what is a genuinely tense and tragic sequence, only to crash while on the phone with the police. Cutting fiercely through all the to-and-froing of the past hour, we are hit with a dose of reality. This track stings all the more in light of the recent Supreme Court verdict on Roe vs. Wade. “Now that there’s a part of you in me, I’ve never felt more depressed and alone in my entire life”, she says. “I can’t live like this. This baby can’t live like this”. The context of this conversation is left vague, but it seems unavoidable to imply something about the psychological risk of a situation where women cannot easily gain access to abortions, or don’t feel comfortable exerting their right to them. With this right no longer legally guaranteed, such situations will likely begin to arise. This possibility should serve as a wake-up call for both artist and listener.
Leaving Wasteland: What to Take Away
‘Wasteland’ is a long album; an hour and four minutes in total, and within this runtime Brent Faiyaz crams an impressive variety of sounds and ideas, though not without avoiding a few flaws and missed opportunities. While the album’s darker, more introspective leaning invests the record with sincerity and a consistent atmosphere, it does leave it slightly short on hits. Although there’s no denying that GRAVITY and DEAD MAN WALKING constitute some of Faiyaz’s best-ever tunes, a fair portion of the remainder of the LP, while varied, sometimes tend to pass by without making too deep of an impression.
The cause of this is most likely Faiyaz’s voice, which can sometimes get tiring and repetitive. Despite seeming aware of this, placing features at opportune points to break things up a bit, it remains the case that the project could do with some more vocal variety. He undeniably has the range, so it’s a shame he’s not always willing to explore it fully. More problematically, it often feels like he’s holding back a little, not fully allowing himself to get really raw on any songs. Faiyaz has a great voice, but perhaps he relies too heavily on his technical ability in order to avoid baring all the necessary soul required to sing on a par with the best contemporary RnB artists.
It is also worth mentioning that the toxic behavior on display in this album is tough to reckon with, particularly in light of his simultaneous efforts to critique society. When one realizes, however, that this is entirely the point of this record; to work through the contradictions he faces, this becomes more acceptable. Still, it is worth noting that this kind of content can be dangerous in a time where toxic men are constantly searching for the latest figure of pop culture to appoint an unhealthy role model of the month’.
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Ultimately, it must be said that ‘Wasteland’ is a significant improvement on his last EP, ‘Fuck the World’, which though not bad, was slightly on the bland side. More crucially, this latest project is, if not strictly ‘better’ in any meaningful sense, certainly a more mature effort than Faiyaz’s last full album, ‘Sonder Son’. With a more thoughtful and cohesive aesthetic, though losing some musical charm in return for gains in distinctiveness and cohesion, ‘Wasteland’ is a promising record with a lot to offer. The real challenge for the future will be to not only maintain and build upon the honesty and maturity found in this project but also to find new avenues to explore while attempting to recapture some of his earlier hit-making melodic catchiness on a larger portion of tracks.
By Samuel Sandor
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Outside of his ongoing MA degree in English and Philosophy at St Andrews, Samuel Sandor spends his spare hours writing – short stories, essays, articles on film, music, or any other subject he finds himself preoccupied by. Through all these strands, he strives to find a unique and unexpected way to look at the subject at hand. Without a concerted effort, it’s easy to form surface-level impressions of both the art and the news that one consumes. Sam’s pieces attempt to answer this interpretative simplicity by inducing curiosity in subjects one might ordinarily devote little thought to. It is this desire to transform viewpoints with novel ideas and to stoke deeper and more extensive conversations which attracted him to The Hollywood Insider.