How R&B’s Brent Faiyaz stayed indie and conquered the charts

This summer, billboards in major cities across the country featured the following cryptic phrase: “I want to apologize in advance for the person I will become once this album is released.”

The billboards belonged to 26-year-old singer-songwriter Brent Faiyaz; The album in question was Wasteland, a cautionary tale R&B trap opera that satirizes fame at a time of social and political upheaval. Today, “Wasteland” debuted at number 2 on the Billboard 200, right behind global megastar Bad Bunny.

This is a major triumph for Faiyaz, who has an unwavering commitment to working independently of major labels, including distribution.

“I think I’m pretty good at doing this all by myself,” he says over the phone from a Beverly Hills hotel.

Faiyaz was born Christopher Brent Wood in Columbia, Md., a suburb of Baltimore to African American and Dominican parents. Although extremely introverted as a child, he secretly recorded freestyle raps at home; On his Soundcloud page, he tested the nickname “Faiyaz,” an Arabic word for “artistic,” as suggested by a Muslim classmate. Though becoming a famous rapper was his teenage dream, Faiyaz began slowing down his flow to reveal a more articulate R&B Casanova lurking inside.

Wasteland – a follow-up to his 2020 EP F—the World, which includes collaborations with A-listers like Tyler, the Creator (“Gravity”), Alicia Keys (“Ghetto Gatsby”) and Drake with the Neptunes ( “Wasting Time”) – is fueling R&B for a generation of chronic social media oversharers and bloodletters eager to show their battle scars after a global pandemic has left millions dead and millions more feeling lonely and helpless. Faiyaz, who once sought the limelight, was difficult to recognize under his glow.

“Maybe I don’t need a hug / Maybe I’m just screwed,” Faiyaz concludes of Wasteland’s “Addictions.”

The Grammy-nominated singer spoke to The Times about the journey to Wasteland, the residual guilt that comes with achieving your goals, and how battling your demons sometimes requires attacking yourself.

They put up billboards across the country saying, “I want to apologize in advance for the person I’ll become once this album is released.” Where did that idea come from?
It was the fans. They kept tweeting that line, we just took it and ran with it. From my fans point of view it was fuel for them to be some kind of path. For me it’s a lifestyle thing – my life will never be the same again.

Who were you before you became Brent Faiyaz?
I was a pretty quiet kid. I didn’t really like having a lot of friends. All I really focused on was music and drawing – my favorite thing to do was draw buildings. I enjoyed practicing straight lines and playing with distance and shading. I loved the way shadows looked in the sunset. I had so much fun doing this, but now my attention span doesn’t allow me to draw anymore. My brain had to make room for music.

How did you get into music?
I started recording when I was 11 or 12. I downloaded some cheap software to make beats and I came home from school and rapped out my feelings. It was cathartic. It was my little secret for a while. When I felt like I was getting good, I started burning CDs and giving them out to my middle school. Then people started wanting to be my friend, wanting to get going. At some point we had a clique going, we called ourselves Civilized Human Beings for a while. Lost Kids came about when I was 15 or 16.

Ten years later Lost Kids became the name of your joint record label with your manager Ty Baisden. Did you intend to be a strictly independent artist?
Lost Kids didn’t become a business until I met Ty in 2014. He heard my song “Natural Release” on Soundcloud. I was 18 when I dropped it. I spent senior year of high school on my phone, making industry contacts and sending links to my music. If I read an article about one of my favorite artists, I would email the author. I treated it like I was applying for a job.

The buzz around your 2020 EP F—the World has been amazing – and you just released it as the pandemic swept the US
I was supposed to be doing this tour and doing press and videos when “F—the World” came out, but I had nowhere to go. At the same time, I gained a huge audience from all the other people who were stuck in the house. That was the best press I could get.

What was your state of mind when you started recording “Wasteland”?
I lived in Atlanta for a few months [because] I was there with someone. But the murder of George Floyd led to riots and protests. And with [COVID-19] come on, everyone lost someone. People were unemployed. It was a pretty crappy time, but I started making the best money of my life. I [was] Buy cars and travel from place to place. I was in the studio during the day and protested at night. Then I would go to the club. So I wrote it [“Wasteland”] Songs “Dead Man Walking” and “Loose Change”.

These songs are pretty nihilistic. Could you even imagine a future back then?
I mean, I mostly felt guilty. I could do all these cool things while people were down. I still think we still haven’t fully dealt with COVID. There’s a lot of healing that we haven’t done as humans in the past two years.

An R&B singer in a jacket and shirtless performs on stage outdoors

Brent Faiyaz performing at Coachella in 2017.

(Emma McIntyre)

“Wasteland” unfolds like an R&B opera of sorts: the protagonist is a young singer struggling with his own fame, arguing with his pregnant girlfriend and who else he wants to bring into play. Is this record supposed to be autobiographical?
Well, the songwriting definitely is. But the skits? nope

You act out some intense scenes in the skits between the songs. There’s plenty of psychodrama – crying, screaming – and it culminates in this epic car crash. Do you sometimes feel triggered by your own records?
That’s hard to hear. i won’t lie I was in the studio with one of the voice actors when we did the last sketch. I stood next to her and she was shaking and crying her eyes out because she is a real actress. She scared me a little. I had to ask, “Are you okay? Are you all right?”

What drew you to embrace this form of storytelling?
I wanted to give it the feel of a Shakespearean tragedy. A hero fighting the evil of his own fatal weaknesses.

And yet you open the record with a track called “Villain’s Theme”. There’s another one called “Egomaniac”. What is it about?
I guess the image I created in “F—the World” is unintentional, [made] People perceive me as negative or “toxic”. So I was like, ‘OK, I can be the bad guy, that’s cool. But I can take it somewhere else.” I never wanted to focus too much on being good, and I never wanted to focus too much on being bad. Being either good or bad is not human.

You know? And it’s not human to write love songs all the time! Shawn Stockman from Boyz II Men recently wrote some tweets about it R&B is losing its way. Let’s face it bro, Boyz II Men has made so many records about the same damn thing. We love it, they sound good, they’ve sold millions of records. But everyone is sticking to that romanticized ’90s R&B idea. The music is actually very diverse and can cover so many different themes.

Have you ever been hesitant or afraid to share intimate, sometimes unflattering parts of yourself with others?
I feel like I have no choice. It wouldn’t resonate if I didn’t go there. Whether you like what you feel or dislike what you feel, the goal is to make you feel some. How R&B’s Brent Faiyaz stayed indie and conquered the charts

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