Brent Faiyaz is redefining what it means to be an R&B artist

Unsigned, proudly independent and at the helm of not one but two musical projects, Brent Faiyaz is carving out his own space in R&B's crowded world.

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Flouting contemporary R&B conventions and equally eager to reflect on his flaws as he is to participate in bawdy revelries and champagne-soaked nights – Brent Faiyaz has arrived. In the past few years, the Maryland native has managed to remain humble among some notable achievements, but we can’t ignore the success anymore. Last year, he formed the band Sonder with producers Atu and Dpat to release their Into EP, and he showed up for a scene-stealing hook on GoldLink’s single ‘Crew’. These triumphs have led him to the current moment: the release of his debut album Sonder Son, a Grammy-nomination, and sold-out tours throughout the U.S. and Europe.

For Faiyaz, life is far more nuanced than the journey from a life of hardship to a life filled with Aston Martins and models. “The people who I’m around don’t even allow me to get big headed and shit like that,” he says. “We keep the family really close-knit.” He is willing and indeed finds it necessary to consider how his interactions with the world – often hostile to young black men – impact his psyche, and how that, in turn, impacts how he interacts with his music. Beyond Sonder Son’s introspective themes: family, friendship, and love—the album houses lessons about dealing with fame, countered with reflections on the poverty he witnessed while recording the project in the Dominican Republic. An example of this is his track “First World Problemz/Nobody Cares”, on which he grapples with this contrast. “A death in designer (ain’t everything) / To live on an island (ain’t everything) / We keep on tryin’ (to have everything) / We’ll end up dyin’ (over anything),” he sings on its hook. Sonder Son is the product of an artist who embraces the personal and the political.

But that doesn’t mean that encouraging his peers to do the same with their music is something he values. He welcomes people to look up to him, but really, he welcomes more people he can look to. On his work with the Sonder trio, Brent Faiyaz saw room for himself to grow more with others, and this is why there’s been such a rise in recognition. “Working with the band really taught me how to collaborate. I learned how to work with different producers and in different environments.” Removing the isolation from his work allows his own solo ventures to improve, “Taking that into sessions with other producers when I’m working on my solo music, I know how to bring out the best in everybody that I work with.”

The outcome is music that spins a spider-silk thread of connectivity between the lessons of Into with Sonder Son. Earlier singles like ‘Natural Release’ and ‘Allure’ show an artist with obvious vocal and writing gifts but whose still figuring how to best apply them. The former takes the form of emotionally lucid storytelling while the latter showed hints of the throwback aesthetic he employs today. He’s working towards becoming more vulnerable to add another level of depth and transparency to his songs, which he says has been therapeutic in expressing his experiences with love. “Everything I do is influenced by love. Love is something that connects all of us, I can have love for something or somebody,” he says. “Whether you wanna sing about it or not, it’s not always romantic, it’s just real.” Since its release, Sonder Son has established Faiyaz as a renowned young R&B talent with a distinctively sultry style, whose lyrics explore more than the genre’s archetypal portrayals of heteronormative love.

But the music is not all candlelit slow-jams, and there’s a fairly stark contrast between the soulful singer from the records and the casually blunt person on the couch after the show. “It can’t be too much of the same thing; every song can’t be about the same shit, I gotta feel the full spectrum. You can’t talk about this and not talk about that. You can’t talk about the black and not talk about the white, you know?” Both Paradox and Sonder Son were weaved together with various skits, a tool he consciously employs to display his multidimensionality, “I feel like the skits serve show the full person,” he shares. “If people just heard the music and then would see me at a show or hear me talk for the first time, it would throw them off. So I like to include as much of myself in the music as I can.” When he’s singing, his voice imparts a vulnerability and sensuality that matches the 90s R&B that inspires him, but his frank disposition when speaking permeates his albums.

Whether this frankness works for Faiyaz’s growth within a rapidly changing industry, one that is becoming less centralized and more dispersed, is yet to be seen. Faiyaz has decided not to pursue a deal with a traditional label, and he chalks this resistance up to trust in his own team. “I didn’t really have shit to lose, so the fact that this shit worked just proves that sometimes you can sit back and assess the situation,” he says. But that doesn’t mean that there’s not an inherent risk to relying on the internet, award recognition, and his own sound, “I can’t even front, we didn’t know anything at all except for that we trusted each other and we’re gonna find a way to make it work.” For Brent Faiyaz, the determination to develop is there, and so is the faith. “If it makes sense to you, then trust your gut and go with that shit, you know what I mean?”

Photography Mark Peaced
Follow Mariana Carvalho on Twitter

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