R&B That Sweats, Emotionally and Physically

There’s a beautiful, crabby song in the middle of “Wasteland,” the new album by the singer and songwriter Brent Faiyaz, called “Rolling Stone.” The synthesizers are operating at full throb, what sounds like a meandering flute wanders in and out, and there are no discernible drums. Faiyaz opens with a lamentation: “I’m a rolling stone/I’m too wild for you to own,” then turns defensive, complaining, “First I’m exciting, then I’m gaslighting/Make up your mind.”

He has an earnest, sturdy voice, sometimes deploying an anxious yelp that casually recalls Raphael Saadiq. But unlike that classicist singer, Faiyaz is more of an impressionist, alternating between vocal tones, delivering some lines with power and some from a distance. “Rolling Stone” is spacious and ethereal but not directionless — it is R&B that privileges mood over structure, soft daubs of feeling over authoritative belting.

“I’m sorry in advance if I let you down,” Faiyaz sings, with an energy that sounds less like regret than resignation. He knows that he absolutely did.

“Wasteland” is an album about failure performed by someone currently at the peak of his success. It just debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard album chart, reflecting the stored-up anticipation for the R&B singer since his last release in 2020.

But Faiyaz’s ambient approach also encapsulates something about the state of mainstream R&B, which has had a challenging decade, and has only in the last couple of years found a new creative sweet spot. That hasn’t always been reflected commercially, however. There has been almost no turnover on the Billboard R&B albums chart — of the current Top 25, only seven were released in the last year, and many are several years old.

This stagnation is in no small part a result of how Drake and his informal cache of protégés took the melodies and emotional gestures of R&B and seamlessly melded them into hip-hop at the turn of the 2010s, leaving a generation of pure singers interested in older modes of R&B in the lurch. Faiyaz is part of a newish wave — see also Bryson Tiller — that has reverse engineered Drake’s alchemy and applied it to R&B. For Faiyaz, that means soul music that’s trippy, fitful and attitudinal; there are almost no classic soul arrangements, nor even the hard swing of 1990s hip-hop soul.

“Wasteland” demonstrates the limitations of that approach as often as its strengths. The album describes, in often discomfiting detail, the wages of fame, juggling boasting and self-loathing in equal measure. Faiyaz sings with conviction, but he’s rarely grounded. Instead, he lives somewhere out in space — a man regarding his experiences from afar.

Its production, which zigzags, wheezes and soothes, rarely feeling steady, sometimes tells the story more effectively than he does. “All Mine” sounds like it’s being delivered through a shower of static, and “Price of Fame” rests on a bed of resonant plinks that feel bulbous and slippery. There are urgent punches of strings on “Loose Change” and new wave shimmers on “Jackie Brown.” (Faiyaz is a producer on most of the songs here, along with some regular collaborators including Jordan Waré. Intriguingly, Saadiq is also a producer on two songs.)

But even as the production moves in various directions, Faiyaz’s story remains constant: He is a cad, made worse by success, and a disappointment to women he’s pledged to love. “I’m probably faded when you see me on the TV, I can’t help that/I’m just playing cards I was dealt bad,” he croons on “Ghetto Gatsby,” one of the album’s best songs (if you can ignore the Alicia Keys guest rap). Here he leans past Drake-like emotional reckoning and into the depravity that characterized the early mixtapes from the Weeknd.

That continues on the series of skits that span the album, which catalog a desperately broken relationship between Faiyaz and a woman who is pregnant with his child. They’re uncomfortable, cruel and end with an awful cliffhanger; taken together, they’re almost as unsettling as “We Cry Together,” the aggrieved tête-à-tête from Kendrick Lamar’s latest album.

There is sex on this album, but not much pleasure — mostly it’s a tool of ego. Even though Faiyaz boasts abstractly of his prodigious conquests, little is explicitly carnal — aggressive flirting on “All Mine,” and an allusion to leaving “love stains” in the back of an Uber on “Ghetto Gatsby.” Faiyaz’s in-and-out-of-focus mode doesn’t leave much room for ecstasy.

That slack, though, has lately been taken up by female singers, who are revivifying the erotic in R&B. The frankness of Summer Walker and SZA, perhaps taking a page from the brashness of the recent class of female rap stars, including Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B, has been one of the most thrilling movements in pop music over the past couple of years.

When it broke out on TikTok late last year, Muni Long’s “Hrs & Hrs” felt like a logical continuation of that phenomenon. With languorous sensuality, Long sings about how time becomes elastic when you’re enthralled. “Order shrimp and lobster towers/But it’s me that gets devoured,” she sings, patiently and desperately, as if buckling under unrepressed humidity.

That song originally appeared on Long’s self-released 2021 album “Public Displays of Affection,” the third she’d released under that artist name. (She formerly put out music as Priscilla Renea.) It was one of several songs of hers — “Thot Thoughts, “Bodies” — that underscored the importance of desire.

Her new EP, “Public Displays of Affection Too,” is concise and tart. Her songs are crisply structured in the 1990s vein, sauntering head-nodders with pointed vocal emphasis. There is one up-tempo song, “Baby Boo,” which nods to the Atlanta bass classic “My Boo” by Ghost Town DJ’s as she and the rapper Saweetie engage in indulgent praise of their partners.

But skepticism suits Long better, and the remainder of the songs thrive on the tension of craving the person that’s pulling away from you. On “Another,” she’s adamant about telling her partner someone else “bought me roses, you wasn’t focused.” “Cartier” links generosity and arousal: “If you tryna cuff/Wanna see the diamonds in your eyes while we’re making love.”

The rawest track is “Crack,” by far the most explicit song Long has released: “If I let you take off my dress/What’s between my legs/You didn’t know that it could get you hooked like that.” It’s also her most relaxed moment, the sound of someone secure in her desire, and who doesn’t have time to be anxious.

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