Giveon Might Turn Your Text Message Into a Song

The R&B singer spoke to VICE about life after a Drake co-sign and why no conversation is safe around him.
KC
Queens, United States
October 5, 2020, 11:00am
giveon-standing
Photo by Obidi Nzeribe

Drake might be one of the biggest rappers on the planet, but his ear for cultivating up-and-coming talent is unmatched. Last March, he debuted "Chicago Freestyle" featuring a deep, smoldering, and then-unknown voice on the hook. On the first listen, the rumble of the vocals is so low that it seems purposely engineered that way. But that's just the rolling baritone of Long Beach singer Giveon, who can now join the shortlist of singers like Jorja Smith and Snoh Aalegra (who he toured with last year) Drake has cosigned. Later that March, Giveon released Take Time, his debut EP that takes the listener through a relationship in all of its phases.

"It wasn't in our control when ["Chicago Freestyle"] would come out, but it just happened so beautifully and perfectly aligned with the rollout for Take Time," he tells me a few days before the release of When It's All Said and Done, a four-track project that fills in the blanks where the tattered relationship in Take Time leaves off. The other thing he couldn't control was breaking into the music industry as a new artist during a global pandemic. "I wondered why some historic shit had to happen the week I dropped," he says. "We questioned pushing it back, thinking it would blow over, but we're six months into quarantine. I'd still be waiting."

On When It's All Said and Done Giveon merges his distinct tone with his talent for turning storylines into raw lyrics. While most artists brag about how quickly they can write a song, Giveon approaches his music a bit more meticulously. He says he spends anywhere from eight to 10 hours on just the first half of a song. He honed his writing skills during the three semesters he spent taking creative writing courses before dropping out of college, but he explains his knack for story structure with such veracity that he might be able to do my job if he wanted to.

Pandemic or not, Giveon is experiencing all this newfound fame has to offer—including rumors that he is five years older than he actually is (His thundering voice is probably to blame). The 25-year-old singer sat down with VICE to talk about Take Time, When It's All Said and Done, and why he doesn't want to be a sex symbol.

VICE: On "The Beach" you include a message from your mother who is warning you not to come home. When you're from Long Beach, and other neighborhoods like it, you understand that kind of call. I feel like people have a preconceived notion of what that city is like. What was it like growing up in Long Beach?
Giveon: I grew up in Long Beach during a transitional phase. It's a lot better now, but there was a time where it was the peak of gang culture. That's a crazy thing to be born into. There's a difference between being from somewhere where there is gang culture, and being from a place where gang culture was birthed.

My mom was born in the 70s, but grew up in the 90s, seeing all types of things. Because of her PTSD, she sheltered us from all of it as best as she could. There was a lot going on around us that we didn't even know because my mom kept us in a bubble. Although we grew up within it, she made us feel like it was a lot prettier than what it actually was. We weren't exposed to it until we walked to school. But there's beauty in it. I'd much rather be from there than Beverly Hills or something.

I think people get so enamored with your tone that they miss your songwriting. You've said some songs were lifted from conversations with friends. Do you ask them how they feel or are you building out a scenario from a text message?
It starts with just a normal dialogue between friends. I don't tell them that I'm looking for inspiration or anything like that. We just talk and I'll take a mental note, then go home and make the song. I don't even tell them it's about them or their situation. They'll just hear it and be like, This sounds real familiar. I'll be like, I don't know what you're talking about. I don't even let them claim that it's their story.

The hardest part is writing a song as a story. A song is so short and there are only so many words that every line has to hit. The words have to flow. You can't say certain words that sound weird next to each other, you can't repeat words too much. I'll have the story in my head, but it's about making it sound pretty.

I can just say I miss this person, but I'm not going to tell them that way—and I might act like I don't miss this person. That's when I'll say stuff like, "Sometimes I wish you knew, but I disguise the truth."

I revisited Take Time and by the end, you're blaming the girl, but you cheated on "Favorite Mistake." How did that become her fault, can you clarify that for me?
Some people are really in denial like that. They really are oblivious to something and don't appreciate it until it's gone. The way I write, if I feel that way about someone I'll switch it. If I left a situation because I feel like they took me for granted, I'll write a song from the perspective of the person who didn't appreciate me.

You are so clear with your words singing about relationships, but it's also clear that the relationships you're singing about required more communication. What is it about music that you think allows people to say what they want that they can't say in real life?
Music is a diary. Sometimes people make music as if no one's going to hear it, as if they can just be completely honest. Things are a lot more acceptable said in a song than it would be in person. Art excuses a lot of things.

Were the songs on When It's All Said And Done throwaways from Take Time or did you go back and recreate the wheel?
These were all fresh, new songs that are continuous feelings from Take Time, but these are all new stories. A lot of these songs are so special to me that I wanted to save them for my debut album. But I realized I couldn't harvest and hold onto the songs, I had to let them go.

I want to get into "Last Time." You and Snoh Aalegra sound so good together. You went on tour with her back when live music was still a thing. What was the process like recording that?
I wanted it to feel intimate and like a dialogue between me and her. I didn't want to just slap a Snoh feature on it. I wanted it to feel like we were singing into the same mic, going back and forth. Like a good duet that my mom would play while she's cleaning around the house or something.

I love "Stuck On You" because nobody wants to look dumb in front of their friends. But I admire that men want to save face by any means necessary. How did you approach writing this one?
I love that song so much because I've been in that situation and so have so many other people. You'll say so much about this person to your friends in a negative light, bashing them. You say all that, just to go back. Now your friends are over it. After so many times, it starts to affect the way your friends look at you. They start respecting you less. There are so many layers to that song that people could relate to. There's the friend aspect, but also me being aware that I keep going back and I look dumb.

And you even say "Oh, I'm just going to pull up on a friend." It's clear you feel dumb too because you're even changing your language to appease your friends.
I'm so happy you heard that transition. I hope no one's playing on shuffle like a maniac. If you play a new project on shuffle, you're a psychopath. [Laughs]

One thing I appreciate about this crop of new male vocalists is that you guys aren't super sexed up. Y'all are relatively chill and keep your clothes on.
I do not want to take my shirt off, ever.

You don't want to be Giveon, the sex symbol?
No, don't even look at me. That starts to take away from you as an artist and a creative. I'm about to start walking around in a Dickies suit like a mechanic.

Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.