Photography by Sophie Jane Stafford
Fashion by Michael Alexa
Brent Faiyaz has one of those voices you’re sure you’ve heard before - it’s familiar in the way that Prince is familiar, that Marvin is familiar, that D’Angelo is – as though his vocal tones are connected to something so deep in your subconscious that your soul recognises it before you do. You’d expect the owner of a voice like that to know about it, for it to be a source of entertainment at family gatherings growing up, a reason for girls to have a crush on you in high school. But not for Brent - it took him quite some time to figure out what he had. His musical journey began with his hopes and intentions pinned on becoming a rapper, not a singer – definitely not a singer. Yet here we are, three years, two solo records and one Sonder record later, and Faiyaz is barely getting started.
It’s strange to imagine an alternate reality in which Brent’s paired-back R&B inflections never existed – his is one of the names spearheading the genre’s recent reinvention (“I’m not gonna say it was dead or no shit like that, but it’s different now. It’s going somewhere else.”) with his beautifully crafted 2017 release SONDER SON. Sound effects and skits that reflect snapshots of his life over the last few years are carefully woven through the 12 tracks to create something intrinsically relatable. This level of thought is not un-noticed; however, everything takes a backseat against his effortless vocal range and the ease with which he delivers it. Acoustic interlude “Burn One” possesses a raw beauty that’s powerful in its simplicity, and defines the understated strength that underpins Brent’s whole back catalogue.
We’re on a crackling phone-line, and Brent is modestly reasoning with me as I refuse to believe he was clueless about his voice until a few years ago. Sheepishly, he admits: “if I heard a song I liked I’d sing along to it, so I guess I always had a little idea that I could sing.” However, he only began singing “for real, for real” when “working in a studio alone. I’d started singing to layer my beats, and that’s when I thought ‘wait, I could do this on a song if I wanted to.’”
He maintains, however, that even though the vocal style he uses to communicate his messages has altered from those initial rap plans, his approach to how he creates those messages has not. He explains “typically, R&B artists sing about the same shit – relationships or whatever, but I feel that hip-hop talks about such a wide range of subjects and shit going on in the urban community, too” and it’s important that he’s not boxed in. He continues, “the whole reason that I’m an R&B artist is because people listen to my shit and think ‘R&B’, so I’m like ‘alright cool’ – I’ll take whatever category y’all say that I’m in, as long as I can excel whilst I’m doing it.”
The Baltimore native only quit his grocery store day job to move out to the west coast and pursue music full time two years ago, but he’s already accumulated an impressive array of accolades – including a Grammy nomination for his feature on “Crew” with fellow D.M.V. artist Goldlink. Even though his autobiographical lyrics from track “L.A.” suggest the move was a struggle initially (“God damn / it ain’t easy let me tell ya / account is overdrawn / doing sessions in the valley every other night”) his undeniable work ethic has guaranteed an accelerated rate of success. And now? “Being able to wake up and do what I want is really the highlight”.
Brent is an artist in the truest sense of the word. When we meet for the first time in London (on set for the BRICK photoshoot) he arrives with an entourage unlike one I’ve ever seen before. Despite the long journey from L.A. he has his stylist, videographer, and entire creative team alongside him. “I’m with these people every day!” he says as we catch up on the phone weeks later: “These the homies! Every day we’re plotting on how to get better and how to move smarter or how to make this shit bigger than what it is, so it’s like, if that’s what we spend every day doing, and we always together, what you think is gonna come out of that?”
Brent’s team is tight knit – they keep it all in house. When I ask if there’s anybody outside of that circle he wants to collaborate with? “No, not really. I mean, there’s some legends like Pharrell, Stevie Wonder, cats like that, but nothing that’s new right now”, and any artists he thinks deserve more credit and recognition? The only name on his list: long-time friend and collaborator Amber Olivier. His reason for keeping himself to himself? “Just to maintain the purity of what you’ve got, you know? A lot of people take that personally, a lot of people that you don’t want to work with, but if I see an artist and we work on a record, that’s lit, but it’ll be on some cool shit – it won’t be on that ‘let’s make a banger’ type of shit.” He explains, “but people should be more confident in what they got from the beginning. I feel like it’s OK to keep your shit in house. The whole goal shouldn’t be trying to get a co-sign or trying to get somebody to change your life in a day. The goal should be trying to change your own life, you know what I mean? “
Keeping the focus firmly on doing good work and knowing it will be appreciated in the long run, as opposed to making bangers with big names for the now, is an uncommon career approach when modern culture has such a short attention span. Brent laughs at this, exclaiming “Tunnel vision! Fuck what everybody else got going on and focus.” This mind-set is apparent in multiple aspects of conversation with Brent, especially when asked who he’d most like to share a recording studio with: “I’d really want to pen some shit with Nina Simone so I could see her thought process and how she came out with certain records that she wrote. I would like to do some shit with her.” – another example of an artist who did things entirely by their own rules and standards, it’s almost predictable that Faiyaz would choose someone as unpredictable as Miss Simone to collaborate with.
It’s both endearing and evocative of his love of basketball to hear Brent refer to the day-to-day of his vocation as “practise”, explaining: “I think when you’re an artist you’re constantly practising. All the performances, writing and recording you do, you’re just practising how to properly convey your thoughts and emotions onto the record – or how to touch on certain messages without making it look corny. It’s a skill, I guess. I’ve just been sharpening my sword this whole time so now I go into the studio and know what I’m going to get.” And with multiple musical outputs, both as a solo artist and as part of the group Sonder (with producers Dpat and Atu), Brent’s been “sharpening his sword” more than most, especially considering his need to “get into two different zones, depending on what I’m recording. Even from a song writing standpoint, working on my solo record I’m more personal with the content. Some shit is a little less comfortable to work on when there’s multiple people in the room.”
Contrary to feeling uncomfortable with “folks coming in” to the studio, Brent does appreciate the feeling of “getting recognition when I walk down the street, people showing love, letting me know they fuck with me and what I’m doing. I like the respect.” There’s a noticeable lack of reference to money, or anything tangible, as we speak about his career highlights – manifesting the meaning of his track “Nobody Carez” as he reiterates “It’s the little things” that matter most to him.
The quality of the phone line suddenly deteriorates, white noise interrupting Brent’s phrases and making it hard to fully appreciate the nuances of his answers. I decide to wrap the interview here, my last question a result of reading multiple quotes where he expresses displeasure at his unfinished verse for “Crew” being used as the song’s (now ubiquitous) hook. So, is he still mad?
Brent laughs, a lot, before responding:
“Oh hell no, I love that shit!”
This is story was originally published in BRICK Edition 05.