On his second album, “Wasteland” — which debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard 200, on the strength of 107 million on-demand streams, or 81,000 units in stream equivalent albums — Brent Faiyaz leans into his own dichotomy. He plays the charming romantic, as well as the toxic villain, embracing two of the labels that have been attributed to him over the years. It’s all part of a larger, nuanced story that envelops one of the buzziest albums of the year.
And it’s no wonder people are talking about “Wasteland.” The album’s theme of darkness takes the listener through tumultuous relationships, the grind of life on the road and implied death by suicide. Many hail its cinematic cohesion; some have criticized its length and the inclusion of skits, but people are listening — and talking about it.
Variety spoke with Faiyaz after the numbers came in.
How would you describe your creative process for this album?
For me, it was a lot of traveling and moving from place to place, and collaborating with different people who really inspired me. Every artist that worked on “Wasteland” was somebody that was part of the overall story. Alicia Keys made the first CD I ever bought. Drake’s “Take Care” was a classic that inspired me when I first started making music. I got in with the album’s executive producer [Jonathan “Freeze” Wells], and I started realizing that all the songs told a story. It had a narrative from beginning to end, so I didn’t want to leave any songs out. Whether the single dropped a year ago or two years ago, it don’t matter because I felt like I wanted to give that record a specific home, because it was a part of a story.
This album is a bit darker in tone than your previous works. Do you find your own music difficult to listen to?
Oftentimes, records that are real personal will come from a place where I know where it came from, and I can pinpoint that to an exact situation that really happened in my life. It can get hard to listen to, and especially hard to perform. Some songs, I’ve been performing, and I’m just like, “Man, that’s just a lot; I can’t perform this shit right now.”
One of the notable aspects of the album is the skits. What did the process of writing these skits consist of? How did you recruit voice actors?
Freeze wrote the skits. Once we finished all the records, he found the overall story that he wanted to tell, and created an underlying story using the skits, that we couldn’t really get across all the way through the songs. I always use skits for all my projects, but this particular time, we wanted to elevate it. So he wrote the skits, we went to a movie studio, and we hired some really talented actresses to come in and play the other parts.
Did you feel a lot of pressure working with producers like the Neptunes and Raphael Saadiq?
Nah, them’s the homies. It was more just like, we were having fun with it.
You’ve had a publishing deal with Pulse Music Group since 2016. How have they played a role in supporting your career?
Early on, they helped get me into sessions, and allowed me to use their studios and facilities to to put this music out. Being able to record in a space when I needed to was clutch. And also, helping me put projects out and giving me a publishing budget.
Why have you chosen to remain independent all these years?
When you talk numbers and percentages, it just doesn’t make too much sense for me to get in [the studio] with producers of my choice, and creatively make all this music on my own, then give up so much of a piece of the pie on the back-end. It’s just common sense. I think a lot of those deals like, motherfucking 80/20 splits and [artists] getting 20-something percent royalty rates on music that they write and produce themselves just doesn’t make sense to me. It’s just simple math.
On “Wasteland,” you address being labeled the face of “toxic R&B.” Dvsn also recently released a song called “If I Get Caught,” which has been marketed as a “toxic” single. How do you feel about the current state of R&B?
I don’t really think about it, to be honest. I don’t like, wake up and go to sleep thinking about the state of R&B. Anything that somebody else is making, that’s on them. Any opinions that somebody got on what I make, that’s just how they perceive it. During the process, I write what I write and make what I make. We have to drop it under some category, so we put it under R&B. I don’t really be thinking about it like that.
How do you handle negativity online, whether it be from a critic or a troll?
I don’t really pay much attention, to be real with you, to the good or bad. If people gas you up, your head will get too big. If you focus on negativity, then you will be sad as fuck all day. Opinions are like assholes, everybody’s got one. I get more validation in real life — you know, when you walk down the street and somebody stops you and shakes your hand and tells you that they love your work. To me, that’s more valuable than anything somebody could just type.