Brent Faiyaz: Larger Than Life

Brent Faiyaz is the guy in the club who seems mysterious and knows it. He’s got the moody-yet-cool lane on lock, and it’s made him one of the most prominent men in R&B right now. There’s nothing too deep about it, but when it works, it’s like his life is a Scorsese montage of short-term relationships that end with his suitcase getting tossed out the window. His velvety speak-sing won’t blow you away—especially if you were raised in a crib where weekends were soundtracked by the supernatural smoothness of Luther and such—but it is effortlessly fly. As a songwriter, the Maryland native relishes in being the villain (it won’t come as a surprise that he has said he “grew up on Max B and Dipset”). In the process his name has become a descriptor of its own—for the kind of dude who’ll play games with your heart.

What keeps the fuckery in Brent Faiyaz’s music feeling like real life instead of image upkeep is the setting. Since his breakout moment with the silky hook on “Crew”—with D.C. rappers GoldLink and Shy Glizzy—there’s been a sense that even if one of his late-night adventures takes place in L.A. or New York, all roads lead back to D.C., Maryland, and Virginia. On the heels of last year’s underwhelming but extremely popular Wasteland comes Larger Than Life, a life-is-good album where Faiyaz could easily have chosen to pop champagne to his success by bringing all of today’s most powerful rap and R&B artists into the fold. Instead he pays homage to his home by getting both regional pioneers and up-and-comers involved in his mess.

To underline the point, Larger Than Life kicks off with one of those timeless intros from Virginia Beach’s Timbaland that sounds like it’s been ripped off an answering machine. Once the smoke clears for Faiyaz’s naturally icy croons, the immediately recognizable sample is TLC’s “No Scrubs,” which sounds like a jittery Timbo beat but of course isn’t. No context necessary, though: Faiyaz’s conversational and flirtatious delivery is as crisp as ever. That’s followed up by “Last One Left,” another obvious flip, this one derived from Timbo’s beat for Missy Elliott’s “Crazy Feelings.” (Missy, another Virginia native, is here too, basically re-recording the cascading hook of the original.) What could have been just karaoke is spiced up by a pretty batshit verse where Faiyaz lectures some poor girl about getting relationship advice from her friends: “If they gon’ run yo’ life, then get your ass out of mine,” he sings sweetly, as if he’s not in full guilt-trip mode. Tacked on at the end is emerging Maryland rapper Lil Gray, spitting one of those radio-friendly guest features you could expect from Fabolous or Fat Joe in the early 2000s.

Predictably, Faiyaz does the Neptunes, too, on “Best Time.” This one is boring—summoning Timbaland and the Neptunes within the first four songs is nostalgia overload. He doesn’t even need it, not when he can choose from original local producers like Tommy Richman and Mannyvelli, who made the breezy “Upset,” and Manny again on the weightless “Moment of Your Life” (with Dpat and Sparkheem). Unfortunately “Moment of Your Life” doesn’t have vocal chemistry to match: Faiyaz’s thin coos are blown away by the traditional pipes of duet partner Coco Jones. It’s like replacing Usher on “My Boo” with Omarion. Usually Faiyaz gets around those vocal limitations by sticking to an even temperament, but when he tries to sound in love or at least infatuated, the grace turns to strain. He almost gets there on “Wherever I Go”: The falsetto right before the chorus is a nice flourish, just not enough for the pain to hit. It might feel beside the point to rag on his vocals, but rap-infused singers have had the range before. Send him a link to Lloyd’s Street Love.

Faiyaz sounds most alive when the stakes aren’t all that high, like on “WY@,” where his version of accountability is “I be doin’ shit I shouldn’t do for real/That’s why I always tell you to come through for real.” Or when he’s just laying down some player rhymes on “On This Side” with A$AP Ant and CruddyMurda, the D.C. rapper who doesn’t waste his moment in the spotlight. Still, he leaves a lot of emotional questions hanging. Is this life lonely? Is it monotonous? Faiyaz sings about stories that would be the highlight of most people’s year like it’s just another day. There’s gotta be another layer, I just know it. One more look under the hood—that could turn Brent Faiyaz into more than just R&B’s resident cool guy.