Babyface Ray Dropped Two of the Year’s Best Rap Albums—and He’s Just Getting Started

The Detroit spitter, who followed his excellent January debut album with Mob out today, talks about his influences and how he stands out in one of rap’s most vibrant scenes right now.

Babyface Ray.

Babyface Ray.Courtesy of Sam Sklar.

The smoke in Babyface Ray’s downtown Los Angeles hotel room is so thick you imagine his people had stopped at a special-effects rental warehouse on their way in from LAX. The Detroit rapper, in town briefly before a flight to New York for a taping of The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, is in fact fresh from the airport; aDetroit native, he and a small group of friends are watching a rebroadcast of the Pistons’ loss to the Clippers from the night before. His new album, MOB—out today, and his second 2022 release after January’s authoritative, excellent Face—has been finished for some time, and aside from these press obligations, there’s little left to do but wait and pass blunts. 

Fortunately patience is something the 31-year-old has had to cultivate. MOB injects laconic flows with an air of paranoia or urgency; Ray mirrors this in person, poised but not exactly subdued. While the Pistons limp toward their thirteenth loss in the season’s sixteenth game, Ray details the long road he took to the present, cites the Detroit rap legends who haven’t got their due respect (“Street Lord’z, Rock Bottom, Chedda Boy Mailk, Stretch Money…”), and how he aims for the sort of gradual, compounding success enjoyed by veterans like Curren$y.  

You interview your mom on the album, talking to her about sacrifices she made to raise her children. When did you start seeing her as a person who had dreams and goals of her own? 

It wasn’t until recently, when I was living out my dreams. I was having a conversation with my brother, and he told me, “You know, Mom went to college and had big dreams—but ended up being pregnant.” I never knew that. You know how the cycle of life works: You grow up; your parents are your parents, you don’t even really think about what they were trying to do. It’s just a natural thing. But when he said that, it hit me. Everybody do have dreams to be something.

What was the first rap music you really connected with? 

I’m trying to figure out who my favorite rapper was when I was young. Actually—everybody in the world can be fake, but Bow Wow played a major [role]. Because you’re a kid, and if you see a kid rapper, you go, “He hard.” You wanna stand there and do what he’s doing. And then, as I grew, Lil Wayne and the Hot Boys. When he was in the group I envisioned myself as him, because I was the youngest of four brothers. 

And Wayne was young, but he wasn’t a kid rapper. 

We could relate to what he had going on because we was already living in the hood and stuff. 

Now I’ve read the church was a big influence in your life growing up, so maybe rap wasn’t the most acceptable thing. Did you have to sneak around to listen to it? 

See, it’s probably mixed up now, it’s been said [in the press] so many times. I only had a problem listening to rap around church people. My dad had 2Pac and Biggie CDs and everything. He gave his life over to God when I turned, like, 9. But he used to listen to rap. I was just a to-myself person, so I was doing it on my own time. 

From those earliest times, when you were into Bow Wow and then Wayne, did you think of rap as something you wanted to pursue in a serious way? 

Yeah, but it wasn’t really them that inspired me. I don’t even know what took place that made me start doing it. I think it just was like, I wanted to go to the studio, or we would mess with our computers and find a way we could record our voice on there. You know that fat-back computer? With the little mic at the top? We used to put a cover over our heads and rap into that. And then, you know how hobbies on the weekend start: Some kids would want to go to the movies, some would want to go skating. Me and my homeboys used to want to go to the studio. We took our little money that our parents gave us and paid for studio time.

You graduated that fast to real studios?

We started going to studios early in the game—probably ninth, tenth grade.

You guys are rhyming over what, Soundclick beats? 

Soundclick sounds right for sure. And imeem was out. We would take beats from Soundclick, then upload our music to imeem and be able to take our music and put it on our Crushspot pages to go with our profiles. So we had our own music on our profiles even back then. We was our own fans; we wasn’t doing it for nobody else, we were literally doing it for ourselves.

What do you sound like at that point? 

Super metaphors, back to back to back. Fabolous was one of the guys I used to try to [emulate]. Wayne again. Whoever had the best metaphors, we thought that was the thing to do when you were rapping.

So the beats were secondary, you were writing 16, 16, 16, 16… 

Yup, yup, yup. Sometimes we wouldn’t even make it to the studio to record, we’d just have it written out and have our raps. 

Did you live in the same part of Detroit your whole life? What was the city like to you as a kid?

I stayed on East Davison, from one year old to nine years old, then I moved to East McNichols which is 6 Mile, on Dresden street. And I pretty much stayed there throughout my whole youth. It was normal. here was shit going on for sure, but it was normal.

You didn’t feel like you were writing raps in reaction to your environment.

Hell nah. Even when it was going on, we didn’t know it was going on, we were too young.

When you linked up with the other Team Eastside guys—Peezy, Dame Dot, and the late Eastside Snoop, among others—was it because you knew one another socially? Or did it come together as a professional project?

In the midst of me and my homeboys, the Fly Boys, doing our thing, I kinda became the favorite out of the group. It was two guys, Snoop and Peezy, who was doing their music on [Crushspot], and they were really known. I got to Peezy and them by word of mouth; somebody just told them I could rap. And then we ended up linking. The name came about from us putting music out on Twitter, and the fans coming up with [Team Eastside] for us. It wasn’t like I was leaving my homeboys, I was just the best one out of them.

Babyface Ray.Courtesy of Sam Sklar.

The name kind of implies an all-star situation. Were there ego clashes at the beginning? You all went from being the nicest in your social circles to being thrown in together. 

It literally started off as competition. That was our thing: to go in the studio and try to kill each other. A real competition—who’s gonna come out on top today? That’s what fueled us in our music with each other. We would link up and damn near battle in there.

What do you think your win-loss record was in the early going? 

I feel like I was getting my ass kicked! [laughs] I wasn’t getting my ass kicked, but Peezy was the most advanced one for sure. I was doing my thing, I had my moments.

Who do you feel competitive with right now? 

Right now? Nobody. I feel like I’m in the lane I’ve got because I’m coming up, but leading the pack for Detroit. I’m just trying to be the best me right now.

You don’t sound exactly like the other rappers blowing up from Detroit and Flint right now. You’re sort of a bridge from this era back to the glossier, more maximalist Detroit rap of the early- and mid-2010s. The Doughboyz Cashout era. 

I do the music, then I decipher what’s what over time by listening. I do it myself, and I get feedback from people around me. I don’t [premeditate] the beats or the overall sound; I work with a small circle of producers, so the beats are gonna connect how they connect. But it don’t be me picking beats and lining them up [consciously] like that.

You used to sound much more animated on records. What made you mellow into the vocal presence you have now?

You said it: Doughboyz. Once we got together collectively, we kinda [modeled ourselves] after Doughboyz, because that’s who was hot at the time. Me being hype was just the feeling in the room of what was going down. You would be at the mic hyped because everybody was right there. But later, I got in a space where I was just cool on the shit.

Are there sounds you’re gravitating toward today that you wouldn’t a year ago, or five years ago? 

I used to rap on really raw, rugged, flat-out crazy Detroit-sounding shit. My mind is a little more open now; that’s what sets me apart from some Detroit artists, I color outside the lines. Not to knock nobody, but a lot of Detroit artists have a specific sound they stay on. I think I’m probably one of the ones who goes outside that the most.

Your songs have a dreamlike feel.

That’s crazy, because listening back, I know what you’re talking about. I like that cinematic type of shit.

Now that you’re more famous, do commercial concerns ever creep into the creative process?

Commercial concerns don’t really fall into play until I know I have a release date. But when I record, I never think, “I’m about to make a club record, or a radio record.” That never comes up.

Still, you’re about to be as visible as you’ve ever been in your career. Do you feel as if there’s pressure riding on this album? 

Now that it’s done, it’s like, I wonder if people are gonna fuck with it like they fucked with the last one. 

Would it bother you if they didn’t? 

That would mean—shit—I gotta go back in. 

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