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Brent Faiyaz, Drake, and the OVO-ification of Male R&B

The mainstream sound of male R&B, popularized by Drake and the Weeknd, is characterized by vacant beats, the rap-sung monotony, the hypebeast conformity. Faiyaz, despite being influenced by all of this, is a promising alternative.

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Nearly a decade ago, Drake released his third album, Nothing Was the Same, a watershed moment in the integration of hip-hop and R&B.

Around the same time, Brent Faiyaz, then an unsung rapper and producer from Columbia, Maryland, released his first couple of projects, Sunset Avenue and Black Child. They’re both moody hip-hop EPs showcasing Faiyaz as a rapper-singer hybrid in the same spirit as Drake. In an early interview with the music blogger Yohance Kyles, Faiyaz listed his influences. They include Tupac, Aaliyah, Lauryn Hill, Sade, Missy Elliott, Kanye West, Pharrell, and, of course, Drake. This list is notable for the inclusion of Drake as much as it’s notable for the inclusion of the same set of artists Drake would’ve listed if asked the same question in January 2014. There’s only a couple of songs from this period, “Love Thing” and “City Lights/Worst in Us,” where Faiyaz teases the steamy R&B tenor he’d later popularize on the rapper GoldLink’s breakout single, “Crew,” with Faiyaz singing the chorus. Since “Crew,” Faiyaz has found his own voice and forged his own stardom.

Last month, Faiyaz released his second studio album, Wasteland. It’s one of the strongest R&B albums by a male singer in recent years, a soft but stunning reconciliation of the genre’s pre- and post-Drake phases. It’s also a somewhat stunning commercial success: Wasteland debuted at no. 2 on the Billboard 200, nearly toppling Bad Bunny’s juggernaut, Un Verano Sin Ti, now in its eighth week at no. 1.

Even as Faiyaz cultivates his own massive fan base, he hasn’t outgrown the standard comparison to Drake. The music critic Dani Blum, reviewing Wasteland for Pitchfork, writes, “Drake is the obvious touchpoint for all this, both blueprint and benefactor.” Like so many rappers and singers of his generation, Faiyaz inflicts this comparison on himself. Last year, Faiyaz recruited Drake onto his single “Wasting Time,” a breezy 2000s radio throwback produced by the Neptunes. Even without Drake by his side, Faiyaz still mimics him in little ways, like his half-hearted rapping on “Rolling Stone.” Drake is indeed the obvious touchpoint for an entire generation of male R&B singers. Faiyaz is one of countless imitators.

But here’s the thing: Drake couldn’t make or even perform Wasteland to save his life. Not without turning the vocals digital and vacant, per his signature. More likely he’d sample Usher and call it a day. Wasteland is the rare post-OVO album that an R&B traditionalist can love. You’re hearing Drake and the Weeknd on Wasteland, yes, but you’re also hearing Maxwell, Aaliyah, and Babyface. Wasteland is, for the most part, a valiant effort to push R&B beyond Drake. Faiyaz is a true craftsman, maybe even a visionary, with one foot in the past and one foot in the future, finding his center of gravity in the present. At this point, Faiyaz has achieved the pure R&B stardom that Drake often seems to wish he’d achieved, instead of rap stardom or even pop stardom.

Still, in general, Blum is on to something. For more than a decade, Drake, OVO Sound, and the Weeknd have dictated the terms of male R&B. Drake has co-opted R&B so thoroughly that it’s now all but impossible for a generation of listeners to hear certain vintages of R&B without hearing Drake. This despite OVO Sound being a lackluster roster that’s never really overcome the old jokes about it being a prison colony for Drake’s ghostwriters; and also despite the Weeknd having resigned his role at the forefront of prestige R&B, in favor of conventional pop hit-making.

Under Drake, OVO Sound includes Dvsn, PartyNextDoor, Majid Jordan, and Roy Woods, none without talent as singers and/or songwriters, but each constrained by the dismal worldview of OVO and the Weeknd’s label, XO, and each consistently propped up by those two magic words, “featuring Drake.” What is this worldview exactly? It’s often billed as exceptionally crass and vindictive, though that’s not quite right; Bobby Brown and R. Kelly were toxic on so-called love songs long before the Weeknd and PartyNextDoor. It’s really less about the cynicism in the songwriting—even the harshest examples in this corner of R&B, such as PND’s scorching tirade, “Savage Anthem”—and more about the cynicism in the production and performance; the vacant beats, the rap-sung monotony, the hypebeast conformity, the tyranny of vibes. It’s underdressed and underpowered, openly daring you to complain about the samples doing more singing than the singer themself. Frank Ocean may be avant garde, the hipster hero of so-called “PBR&B,” but he’s still discernibly passionate about craft and canon. OVO Sound, in contrast, is the genre’s death drive. It’s a bare bassline, stutter claps, a sad metronome, and a lot of sighing. This is the soundtrack for a record-low birth rate.

OVO Sound isn’t a musical movement à la new jack swing so much as a sort of cartel built to launder the boss’s sensibilities. The operation extends to the label’s loose affiliates, such as Bryson Tiller, Tory Lanez, and, yes, even Faiyaz. Together, these artists enforce a rigid standard for invulnerability in persona and performance. Case in point, Drake and Beyoncé both released dance albums in recent months, but Beyoncé made a big, effusive disco record while Drake made a refreshing, but still hopelessly restrained and ultimately self-sabotaging foray into house. The shortcomings of Honestly, Nevermind were inevitable, really. Drake is often credited for his good taste and his vast awareness of Black music scenes across the globe, but these strengths are often wasted in the constraints, both musical and spiritual, of the OVO worldview.

There’s male-led R&B beyond the OVO worldview, of course; Frank Ocean and the likes of Steve Lacy are a different conversation. But outside the “alternative R&B” playlists you’ll find these artists on, there’s a peculiar tension in the mainstream genre, evidenced by Faiyaz and Wasteland: mimicking Drake to some extent in order to minimize and finally overcome him. Wasteland is the very sort of R&B that captivated a young Drake in the first place. Faiyaz, despite his debts to Drake, seems determined to reconnect the men of the OVO worldview with the legacies they’re always sampling and shouting out at a long nostalgic remove; to remind himself and his peers that Drake isn’t the sum total of his influences but just one name in a long list of musical forebears. Drake didn’t stick to riffing off 808s & Heartbreak. And Faiyaz has come a long way since Nothing Was the Same.