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Last year, I wrote that Babyface Ray was one of the artists who could have made the 2021 XXL Freshman list. With the release of his debut album, Face, last week via Wavy Gang and Empire, that assessment looks closer than ever to becoming a reality for the 2022 list (not to brag or anything). While it’s not a perfect project by any means, Face demonstrates Ray’s star power, illuminating an artist with all the tools to make the leap from promising underground talent to a bonafide hitmaker.
The word that best describes Ray’s unique approach to rhythm and rhyme is dispassionate. Although he’s very much a product of the frenetic Detroit underground scene, taking bits and pieces from the city’s diverse patchwork of sounds and styles, his cadence is more controlled than the frenetic pace demonstrated by other members of his cohort like Sada Baby or Icewear Vezzo. Likewise, his wordplay is similarly low-key, sans the over-the-top punchlines favored by his peers.
Instead, he sounds not exactly world-weary, but weathered, as though he’s seen and done it all – or near enough to it – and has ceased to be impressed, awed, or dismayed by the facts of the street-worn narratives he relays. Whether he’s getting money on “6 Mile Show” with Icewear Vezzo or patting himself on the back with G Herbo on “Blood Sweat & Tears,” Ray’s disposition comes across as though he’s been on the job long enough to see little change except for the faces around him. The business itself stays the same.
Maybe that’s because he’s low-key a veteran of the indie rap grind himself; prior to his latest, he’d self-released 10 projects dating back to 2015. It took 2021’s Unfuckwitable EP to finally bring him the shine he’s been working toward all that time, so you’ll forgive him for feeling a little burnt out. But there’s a benefit to that level of patience: Ray’s confidence is unshakeable and his consistency is time-tested. He attests to as much on “Overtime” with Yung Lean and “Palm Angels, Palms Itching.”
It’s also left him with an – ahem – self-effacing nature. The album opens with a reflective intro, “My Thoughts 3,” on which he ruminates on the climb to his current leaping-off point. He’s now standing at the precipice which a handful of other Detroit natives reached; the closest analog would be Big Sean, with whom he previously collaborated on the latter’s joint EP with Hit-Boy. With one foot still in the Detroit underground, clinging to the raw, chaotic beats that define that sound, and the other prepared to step into the limelight with radio-ready beats produced by the likes of 808 Mafia, Ray has the potential to be the bridge between his hometown’s insular subculture and the wider world beyond.
If anything, this poses the album’s one drawback. Its split personality holds it back; on one hand, Ray could make hits, he could be a superstar (albeit a very laid-back, iconoclastic one), but he’d have to relinquish – at least to a point – his reliance on the style that got him here. We’ve seen that backfire before when artists make the jump from regional to national stars, pissing off their day-ones by sloughing off their roots. By sticking to his guns, though, he runs the risk of alienating potential new fans and wasting the work he’s put in to reach this point
Should he simply stay the course, doing what he does here, the future is murkier. Like Face’s production, it could go either way. Or, and this is what I think likeliest, he could end up forging a new path, slowly but surely letting more folks in on the secret that is the Motor City underground rap scene, and contributing to the next evolution of rap music past its current stagnant state.
Face is out now via Wavy Gang/Empire. Get it here.