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The Toxic Storytelling of Brent Faiyaz

Faiyaz was put on the map after appearing as a feature for GoldLink’s “Crew” in 2016.

Brent Faiyaz, founder of NUWO, lead vocalist of the group Sonder, and perhaps one of R&B's most dominant contemporary artists, just released his sixth album to date in October: Larger Than Life. In 14 songs and 36 minutes, Faiyaz tells a story of love, lust, and loss—nothing particularly groundbreaking. The 28-year-old's narratives usually follow this diegesis, as do those of many other artists, but there's always a strong undercurrent of toxicity that crescendos into a messy falling out with whatever female "antagonist" he's created. It's not unheard of for his songs to be labeled "male manipulator music," and a reflection on his first EP, A.M. Paradox, will show you exactly why.

"Lovely" and "No One Knows" are the EP's most streamed songs - maybe you've heard them before!

A.M. Paradox is a 5-song EP that was released in September 2016, when Faiyaz was 21 years old. It follows Faiyaz and a stripper he fell in love with from their first meeting to their ultimate demise. There's immediately a nod towards an unhealthy development in the first song, "Lovely," when Faiyaz sings, "And I know you love me/Cause I think you're lovely." The vocals and instrumentals are light, gentle, and repetitive. It feels like he's enamored by her, but at the same time, he still only sees her in the context of her work. There's no notion here that he actually cares about her, which becomes more glaringly obvious in "Insecure." The woman discloses her baggage to Faiyaz, explaining why she can't put all of her trust in him because of her troubled past in the midst of very vulnerable and intimate musical dynamics. An outro skit ends the song—a conversation between Faiyaz and fellow R&B artist Paperboy Fabe about a woman the latter was seeing. She dropped him when he said he didn't want a relationship, and after laughing about the situation, Faiyaz reveals he was waiting for it to happen so he could get with her instead. This portrayal of the woman as a "thing" to be passed around, juxtaposed with the hesitant openness of the woman in the song, makes the whole thing feel like a betrayal. It hits you hard in the chest, winding you, and you really start to listen to Faiyaz even if you don't want to. He's got your attention.

"Invite Me" opens with a somber piano melody, interrupted by a sensual blend of retro keys and guitar as the first verse comes in. He repeats that she shouldn't be "ashamed," singing, "I'm sure you'll be fine / Beauty ain't no issue for someone like you." The cacophony of background vocals and his sharp enunciations give the impression that he's invested in her, but he addresses her insecurities in an ingenuine, dismissive way (and if his clear impatience isn't heard in his needy representation, he tells her to "Make up [her] mind / This [stuff] ain't rocket science.")

Faiyaz is tricky. As much as his characters play games with each other in his songs and skits, he also plays games with his listeners. The first time I listened to this EP, I thought "Invite Me" was the zenith. It feels like one of those dreams where you try to scream and your voice completely fails you. I wanted to physically reach into that song and yell and shake both of those people and tell them to end it.

So, imagine my surprise when "Poison" came on (if you haven't heard this EP or aren't listening along, this is when I'm going to need you to open up Spotify, Apple Music, Musi, or whatever and get on board).

The first line in this song, which opens up with another skit, is: "I feel like there's no such thing as a relationship with condoms." Assuming you took my advice and started listening, I don't have to tell you to hit pause and think about the blow to the gut you just took. I guarantee you won't be able to focus on the next two minutes of Faiyaz and Fabe's tête-à-tête about cautious women until the lyrics kick in, and it's already really hard to feel for Faiyaz as he labels himself the victim. The song feels so one-sided in addressing the toxicity, but this experience he walks us through feels painful for everyone involved. No matter how you feel about Faiyaz right now, you can't deny the rawness of the lyrics: “I know it’s bad for me / And you know it tastes so sweet / I think I need your abuse, baby." You're hit with a mix of anger, pity, and desperation during the bridge, amplified by the way Faiyaz reaches into a higher register before an abrupt silence before his last words to her fade out: "You're poisonous, baby."

"No One Knows". Another intro skit, another eye roll, and more tugging at your hair as you silently beg him to just shut up already. 45 seconds in, you're struck with the most upbeat instrumentals that feel wildly out of place. This is where you have to pick a side. When thinking about the story holistically and the nuances of an emotionally and verbally draining relationship, you don't want to—you shouldn't. But Faiyaz loves to play games, and he put you in this position without you even realizing it. Here's where my interpretation diverges from what you'll read when you look up the lyrics on Genius.

My Interpretation

This song feels mean. I don't have any other words to describe it. The intro skit is what mostly contributes to this, when Fabe and Faiyaz talk about how the girls they go out with need to be more grateful for and appreciative of the men's money and fame. This exchange in particular is what set up my more pessimistic view of the rest of the song:

Faiyaz: "You better say something, you feel me?"

Fabe: "And she was in VIP too, 'cause of you."

Faiyaz: "I might have went up into her face like four times/And be like, do you know that I'm why you're here right now?"

- Now, feel free to call me crazy, and I'm not famous or anything, but I would assume that when you're an artist and you're seeing someone, it shouldn't feel like a burden or hassle for you to get them to come see you perform. Maybe it's just me! But it really sounds like these guys are dogging on these girls for not being thankful when they're treating them more like something to be shown off than an actual person (then again, Fabe did mention that he won't commit to a girl in "Insecure," so this isn't much of a surprise). The whole premise of the song is that Faiyaz is tired of being used for his status, and then he turns around and tries to take a jab at her by flexing: "I changed for sure / And I'm ballin on you/Watch me pull off in that foreign." He says that HE put HIS heart on his sleeve? Mr. Faiyaz, I raise the entirety of "Insecure". He wants to talk about change? Let's not throw stones from glass houses, because I haven't seen any character development from you either. To me, this song feels like a weak attempt at him trying to justify her leaving him and redefine his confidence based on the material fruits of his career.

Normal Interpretation

This one is less of a reach. It's more focused on lyrical callbacks and less on the sentiments in each song, and I'll admit that it's a little more fitting. "No One Knows" could also be taken at face value and depict Faiyaz freeing himself from this relationship so he can finally confront its toxicity. He subtly nods to "Lovely" and "Insecure" multiple times. He implies that the girl's stories and vulnerabilities in the latter are fake whenever he mentions games or getting "played for a fool" here. Back on "Lovely", he sang, "Girl, don't act like you changed/When we both know that you can't." The idea of change present throughout this song is a response to that line, acting as a dig at her being a stripper. He seems to suggest that it's in the way of "I threw money at you back then and I kept doing it when we were together—just in a different way."

This isn't to say that all of Faiyaz's discography is problematic or toxic. He just knows how to tell a story. He uses a blend of dialogue, skits, and wordplay to introduce listeners to a world he sees and experiences, confronting the highs and lows that come with fame. These ideas are explored more in his album "Wasteland" and EP "Lost." I definitely recommend giving them both a listen and really giving him a try. He's an incredible creative who is on the cusp of breaking into the rap scene and is in a unique position to facilitate a monumental meshing of rap and R&B in a way we haven't seen.


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