A favorite within Michigan’s increasingly dominant rap scene, Babyface Ray made his career with the kind of deadpan raps that are as icy as winter in the Midwest. Like a Blaxploitation character in rap form, the menacing bars he spits arrive with an almost impossible equanimity. “I done seen it all. That’s why I am so cool,” the 31-year-old rapper says over Zoom in Los Angeles. “Nothing really fazes me.”
Ray’s new album Face, out today, opens with an audacious beat switch that illustrates the rapper’s confident nonchalance. Midway through “My Thoughts 3/ Pops Prayer,” a sample of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” unfurls beneath Ray’s devilishly casual flow — like a Mafia don calmly ordering a hit while seated at a deli, as Journey blasts in the background. “Countin’ money when I’m stressed out/Money counters still ain’t as fast as me,” he raps. If he was stressed, you wouldn’t hear it in his voice.
Few rappers are able to combine a nonchalant flow with the ups and downs of Black American life. If Michigan rap is defined by its inhospitality, Ray’s work is defined by how cool and accessible it is. Unlike Rio da Yung OG’s street-paranoia raps or BabyTron’s pop-culture references, Ray’s music feels more rooted in hip-hop’s conventional concerns. Ray’s favorite topics to rap about include how he is getting more money than you, and how he has overcome growing up in the East Side of Detroit when life could have gone the opposite direction.
“East Side of Detroit is known for being wild, but it was cool, honestly. It was normal. I played sports growing up,” he explains. “I played football for a minute, but then I switched to basketball. I stayed my size in high school though, so I had to get off that. Started messing with females in high school.”
He started rapping around the same time, alongside fellow Detroit rapper Peezy. The story of how they connected is the stuff adolescent legends are made of. “I knew how to make progress reports on the computer. Fake progress reports. But they knew I rapped, too. Once Peezy heard that, we started making music.”
Before this current era, Michigan rap was defined by the horrorcore and personal trauma of Eminem, J. Dilla’s masterful production, or Danny Brown’s drug-aided concept albums. It wasn’t until more recently that Michigan rap became known for what we know now: sinister pianos alongside witty and crass lyrics that make you cover your mouth to muffle your laughter. That, and a lot of basketball references. Ray’s style is different, but the same core elements of Michigan’s current generation of rappers shine through in his dark production and effortless demeanor.
Ray’s career has blossomed over the past several years thanks in part to a spree of features where his skills were undeniable. One of his best features, and all-time-great Detroit rap songs from this era, came on 42 Dugg’s “The Streets.” Stalking his prey with his world-weariness, Ray raps: “Blowin’ through my bag in my sleep/I ain’t been home in weeks/Fuck a White Boy Rick, free Meech, tryna tell you that’s the one we need.”
By name-dropping the infamous white drug dealer turned government witness (and the inspiration for a lackluster Hollywood biopic), Ray illustrates an intimate knowledge and relation to the dynamics of street activities. “We were going through real-life stuff. Our dog was lost to the streets,” Ray explains. “You talking about Rick, but we need Meech home for upcoming youngsters.”
On last year’s Unfuckwitable EP, you could argue that Ray was making a savvy effort at mainstream viability. The EP seemed tailor-made for Atlanta radio and clubs — rap’s most direct pipeline to chart success. And while he’s a talented artist over any genre, the production style didn’t fit Ray’s style like the brooding pianos at the center of Michigan rap does. Unfuckwitable was weighed down by features like the mistaken Jack Harlow guest spot and the Hit-Boy-produced “Allowance,” all distractions from what Ray is best at.
Still, Ray swears that he doesn’t try to cater his music to anyone but himself. “I approach every album the same. I just do me,” he says. “Every record I do is whatever I go through at that time. It just happened to be that.”
Face finds him back in his Detroit roots. “Sincerely Face,” an early candidate for song of the year, starts with a weighty but simple declaration: “Now I can sit and tell you about the diamonds on my chest like everything was easy.” Produced by Flea, the minimal production goes well with Ray’s ability to lure you in like a sniper with guerrilla tactics. It isn’t loud, and it makes it all the more effective. The ad-libs are raps themselves, with him whispering more ominous thoughts through your headphones like an intimidating enforcer. The features are mostly good and don’t distract from the Ray show. Pusha T, G Herbo, Icewear Vezzo, and 42 Dugg are on the album. (Pusha T’s demonstrativeness sounds out of place on his feature. I wish that one was better).
And Ray got help from the production juggernauts 808s Mafia to craft the album’s sound. “I’ve only seen a few rappers stack up to Future. Guys like Gunna and Baby. Babyface Ray is definitely one of them,” producer Southside says. “He really acts like he rap, too. Just mad chill. That’s who he is.”
Ray is poised to become the number-one rapper in a region that is taking over the rap world at large. From the Pistons halftime shows to the East Side history he shares with Peezy, Babyface Ray is becoming a star nationwide as well as in his highly reputed scene in Detroit. He’s the whisperer in the sea of people hollering. When Ray raps, you’ll want to come close and listen or you might not hear the serious stories he has in his arsenal. “Like I said, I have seen some shit. If I can help anyone, I will,” he says. “I’m not saying I know everything, but certain stuff I see people do, I’m like, ‘If you listen to a little bit, I can help you move.’ I’m poised.”