Music by VICE

Brent Faiyaz's R&B Has Rough Edges, But That's the Point

As a member of the trio Sonder and on his own, the LA-based singer is slowly figuring out how to be himself in an industry that favors lotharios and smooth-talkers

by Briana Younger; photos by Shaughn Cooper
Oct 23 2017, 2:04pm

A quote from artist Keith Haring is sprawled across Brent Faiyaz's chest. "I don't think art is propaganda," it reads. "It should be something that liberates the soul, provokes the imagination and encourages people to go further." The Los Angeles-based singer, home in the DMV for one night to perform, says it's a reflection of how he feels about his own approach to art—something that has to come from a real place with no ulterior motive. Indeed, when you hear his voice, buttery and awash with magnetic emotion, it's hard not to feel something.

The word "sonder" is also tattooed right above his eye. The word itself, per Faiyaz word-for-word citation of a definition that appears on a blog called the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, describes "the realization that every unique passerby has their own life just as vivid and complex as your own."

The meaning resonated with him, so he got it tattooed right after he'd signed a publishing deal and "had a little money." The placement was a sort of kiss goodbye to a backup plan, if ever there was one. But it's also the name of the group he formed with producers Dpat and Atu. The tattoo is as much a motto as it is a symbol of his commitment to his dream and a homage to the group he's pursuing it with.

Within the span of a year, Faiyaz released two EPs— A.M. Paradox solo and Into with Sonder—and headlined his first tour with the group, selling out dates across the country. To cap it off, his debut LP Sonder Son was released on October 13. His most visible accomplishment thus far, though, is his contribution to one of year's best songs: GoldLink's infectious single "Crew," also featuring Shy Glizzy. Released in December, the platinum-certified jam features a trio of some of the DMV's most visible artists at their best. Faiyaz offers up the impossibly catchy hook, helping to give the song a staying power that can light up a room anytime, anywhere.

"The first couple of times I went out and heard my voice or heard people listening when I wasn't the one playing it for them, it felt good," he says of hearing "Crew" played in public. "But after a while, I've learned from it. I want to make more things that they like. It's not a personal thing—it's more just what are the streets going to feel? What's going to make them dance? What's going to make them cry?"

He graced the Coachella stage in April to perform the hit before hundreds of thousands of people, but he seems more moved here, backstage at D.C.'s U Street Music Hall, which holds around 500 people. The feeling of being at home has his nerves running high. The Lost Kids, a sort of collective of his childhood friends, are in the building. So is his family. It'll be their first time seeing him headline. By the merch table, a woman could be heard asking if anything had his—her grandson's—name on it as more family members piled in. After the show, his grandfather appears in the greenroom to express how proud he is one last time before he heads out. For an artist who measures success by the ability to provide opportunities for the people around him, it feels like everything has come full circle.

Faiyaz, now 22, was born in Columbia, MD, a suburb situated between D.C. and Baltimore. He started recording music at home when he was around 12 or 13. He and his friends were fans first, but he was inspired by the early waves of underground artists using the internet to find an audience.

He didn't begin to really take music seriously until he moved to Charlotte, NC after high school. His parents—both teachers—prioritized school, though Faiyaz admits he was far from a straight-A student. As he watched his peers lining up their next moves and with his own bills to pay (he moved out of his parents house because he was making too much noise), he had his now-or-never moment. "I wasn't in college. I wasn't on shit. I was just working—I worked at a grocery store and at Dunkin' Donuts for a little bit," he recalls. "I was just like 'fuck this, I can't do this.'" Soon thereafter, he moved to L.A. and started making music in earnest.

Early tracks like "Natural Release" and "Allure" reflect an artist with obvious vocal and writing gifts still figuring it all out. The former calls to mind a Frank Ocean-esque style in its emotionally lucid storytelling while the latter showed hints of the throwback aesthetic he employs today. But he's not all candlelit slow jams. In fact, there's a fairly stark contrast between the soulful singer from the records and the casually blunt person on the couch before soundcheck, and Faiyaz is keenly aware of it. On wax, his voice imparts a vulnerability and sensuality that matches the '90s R&B that inspires him, but in person, he has a more outspoken disposition. He resists the idea that singers have to be the soft counter to hip hop's tough outer shell.

"I don't know whether it's an actual trait or marketing—but if you're a singer, it's like you should be mysterious or quiet," he says. "I'm way too opinionated for that shit. I'm not about to sit here and lick my lips and talk to you all smooth and shit. I want to put my soul into the music and still be who I am when it comes to an actual conversation."

A.M. Paradox was built around this very dichotomy. It aimed to highlight the disparities between how some men act around their partner versus how they discuss details of that same situation amongst their friends. The skits—one about when to use or, rather, not use condoms and another about refusal to commit—play out with reckless candor; the songs hold up the honeyed side of the charade. It can feel toxic, but for Faiyaz, it's also what's real.

"It wouldn't be honest if I were to come out like I'm just a sweet, singing-ass nigga," he says. "I make sure to put that [sweet side] out there in the music, but if it's [a] skit, let me talk to my shit. Let me actually have people know me as a person as opposed to listening to these songs and getting this assumption."

For Sonder Son, he's pulling from more than just his relationships with women. As he's found more eyes and ears and lived through more, it's expanded his source material. He's beginning to enter the part where there's a distinct line dividing his pre-fame and post-fame life. He portrays the feeling with honest, clear-eyed reflection, proving he's more than just a one-trick-pony of sex, love and heartbreak. On songs like "So Far Gone/Fast Life Bluez," he dissects how his relationships have changed, his inability to trust (a recurring theme), the way the "game so deep and the drinks so strong." He reminisces about friends and days gone by on "Gang Over Luv" while "L.A." is a bittersweet homage to the City of Angels and the opportunities it's gifted him. ("It ain't easy, let me tell you/account is overdrawn, I'm doing sessions in the Valley every other night/connections only get you so far/but oh what a feeling," he sings.)

Geographically, the narrative of the album spans coast to coast, but it was recorded in Dominican Republic where he has familial roots on his father's side. "I figured it would bring something different out of me, and it did," he says of the trip. "It was the first time I could isolate myself from everything going on and look back at things I'd gone through. I was digging more into myself than I ever had and learning more about myself the whole way."

Still, the most remarkable part of Faiyaz's journey is, perhaps, his commitment to remaining independent. Though he's been forthright about the decision, he says it wasn't his initial plan. He was taking label meetings when he first got to L.A., but no one was telling him what he wanted to hear. Then, as his music gained momentum, it started to feel unnecessary. While it's commonplace in hip hop to go at it solo (and as the industry has begun to adjust accordingly), a true independent R&B singer is a little less heard of.

"When you can sing and write and all that stuff, labels will throw the bag early. I also think people are just excited to sign, but it's not really about that. It's about power. I want to be more empowered," he says. "Even just watching Pharrell interviews and artists who have been in the game saying not to sign—why would I not listen to them? I want to own my masters. That's the main thing—owning all my music."

Empowerment bleeds into everything Faiyaz touches. The same confidence that lets him move through his industry on his own terms also comes through in his music and in his public (and private) persona. His Twitter feed is an unfiltered stream of thoughts—sensible inspiration, social observations and occasional humility undercut by brash middle-finger moments. There is no curation, no attempt to keep from being overly accessible; Faiyaz allows himself to be himself.

In May, when he tweeted that it was "the first time in [his] life [he] thought about living long enough to see the full impact of [his] being here," it seemed exceptionally candid, even for him. It wasn't a live fast, die young aspiration laid to rest but the potential of a full-life worth living opening up in the wake of his success. "Being old didn't seem like an accomplishment. Everyone I knew who was old was like sick or broke. It just didn't look appealing until I moved to L.A. and started interacting with people who were 50+ and still kicking it, having money, living large," he says. "Being in music introduced me to a whole 'nother life that I don't think me or anybody around me or my family had seen."

As a total package, Faiyaz is refreshingly multidimensional. He doesn't shy away from his own contradictions; he's transparent enough to not mind getting it wrong on his way to getting it right. It's a respectable quality at a time when image management is everything, and he says he'll never be the one to shut up and just make music. His stubbornness combined with raw talent is what got him here and has the potential to give him longevity that outlasts the fickleness of internet fandom. It's not posturing, but an unapologetic aim to be the best and only Brent Faiyaz—even when it gives him or others pause. "If you're not scared while you're doing it, you're not doing it right," he says. "It's easy to play it safe and be liked, but fuck all that."

Brent Faiyaz