This image is the offical album artwork of "FACE," owned by EMPIRE.

One of the most spectacular aspects of local rap movements that gain momentum is the relative youth of the city’s artists. From teenagers like Mobb Deep and DJ Kool Herc in New York City decades ago to Lil Pump and XXXTentacion of the South Florida SoundCloud movement, young rappers tend to consistently control the currents of their cities. That’s what makes Babyface Ray’s success even more impressive. At the ripe age of 31, Ray is a senior citizen in the state of Michigan’s current rap movement. Whereas many of Michigan’s young upstarts gained success at a disproportionately rapid rate, Ray toiled away for years perfecting his craft. Since his first group, Team Eastside, released their debut projects, it has been a long 11 years, but his most recent project, FACE, might finally be what separates him from the rest of the Michigan rap scene as its breakout star.

Prior to FACE, Ray’s musical style and beat choices had been relatively insular. He entertained collaborations with southern trap artists, like Moneybagg Yo on 2021’s “If You Know You Know” but rarely deviated from the standard Michigan-style production and track structure. His lyricism was also less developed, but the improvements have been rapid since 2021’s Unfuckwitable. While Ray has never shied away from speaking on difficult topics in his music, such as family, faith and poverty, his delivery has developed, as has the smoothness of these cadences.

Ray’s growth as a storyteller seems to have come with an even more refined taste in beats and an openness to trying new things. While “experimental” might not be the right word to describe them, FACE has several tracks in which Ray valiantly leaves his comfort zone, and to his credit, most of them work. On standout track “Palm Angels, Palms Itching,” Ray opts for a melodic delivery and deftly rides an underrated, gorgeous beat from producers Reuel and Damjonboi that combines lush strings with a catchy piano loop. The melody is both smooth and catchy, and the track is definitely a pleasant change of pace in the project’s 57-minute runtime. Production-wise, the album’s undeniable apex is the Yung Lean-assisted “Overtime.” Produced by Lean’s compatriot, Gud, in conjunction with Detroit favorite Carlo Anthony, the song combines graceful string crescendos with the skittering drums that have become a trademark of Michigan’s sound. 

Ray also leads fellow Michigander Icewear Vezzo on a foray into southern trap, as the two trade flows over a sinister Southside instrumental on “6 Mile Show.” Their chemistry is remarkable, and their flows weave together seamlessly, but the song’s vibe is shattered at the 1:59 minute mark by an ill-advised beat-switch. The beat itself is actually a cool piece of work by ATL Jacob but one that does not play to either artists’ strengths. Regardless, the song’s first half is phenomenal.

Another successful escapade out of Ray’s comfort zone occurs on “Dancing With The Devil.” Ray, aided by a suave Landstrip Chip hook and hindered by a below-average Pusha T verse, is at his most vulnerable. As is standard for him, his comparisons between the gritty street life he used to lead and the luxury he can now afford are poignant. However, Ray is more introspective than previously, looking at the way that this change has affected his mindset and psyche. He also ruminates on those who only demonstrate friendship when they need favors, asking “I do everything they ask, how am I the villain?” The song’s beat, a muted, sparse R&B-influenced number, accentuates the hook and Ray’s verse perfectly. 

With its several explorations into other hip-hop schools of thought, FACE has the potential to introduce Babyface Ray’s music (and through him, the entire Michigan sound) to new audiences. 

Daily Arts Writer Ryan Brace can be reached at rcbrace@umich.edu