Brent Faiyaz on the Success of 'Sonder Son,' His Love for Lauryn Hill & Why He Plans to Stay Independent 'Forever'

Jessica Xie
Brent Faiyaz photographed at Billboard on Jan. 27, 2018 in New York City.

For Brent Faiyaz, when it comes to stroking the pen, he's a star student. Though the Maryland upstart never valued the importance of the school system growing up, he was always adept at voicing his heartaches and somber realities with his pen and pad. His visceral takes on love and ambition are what allowed his 2017 project, Sonder Son, to win the hearts of R&B purists. With a buttery voice and indelible lyrics to match, Faiyaz had a memorable 2017.

Aside from the success of his project Sonder Son, Faiyaz became a Grammy-nominated artist after he, GoldLink and Shy Glizzy doled out an inescapable record in "Crew" last year. The DMV natives rattled the cages of the music industry with their unmatched chemistry and grit. Though the record failed to nab a Grammy for best rap/sung collaboration in January, Faiyaz was able to add another title to his résumé: platinum-selling artist. The record peaked at No. 45 on the Billboard Hot 100 and provided all three artists the first plaque of their careers. 

After providing listeners a snapshot of his life on Sonder Son, Faiyaz embarked on his first headlining jaunt titled the Sonder Son Tour last month. With close to half of the tour wrapped up, Faiyaz plans to lock back in the studio and unleash more earworms for his eager devotees. Billboard spoke to the singer about the success of Sonder Son, the meaning of his "Sonder" tattoo, his love for Lauryn Hill, being a Grammy-nominated artist, and more.

Take me back to the moment you fell in love with music.

I’d like to say it was always there. If I could think of like a particular moment, I think it was when I got my first play keyboard when I was a little kid. I got a toy keyboard when I was around like five or six. I would be playing it, and typically kids be on that jawn for like five seconds and then go do some other shit, but I would just stick on it and mess with stuff and press the buttons and the different instruments and just do that all day.

On Sonder Son, the first track “Home,” there was a woman in the background playing your mom and she was talking about you being a troubled kid growing up. How did music grow to be an escape for you?

Music to me is an outlet where I can just let out feelings that wouldn’t be appropriate to let out on some everyday shit. Being a man, especially a Black man, I’m not about to walk around with my emotions on my sleeve all day, talking ‘bout my heart -- it’s just too much shit. I got too much stuff to do. Music is my one opportunity to let out how I’m feeling when I’m not talking to a chick or my mom, you know what I mean? It’s just venting.

Do you remember the first song you ever wrote?

It was probably a rap. I don’t even remember the first one. It was some bad ones [laughs].

Ultimately, what made you transition from rapping to singing?

Really, [my manager] Ty. I was doing both, on my Lauryn Hill shit, I guess. There’s so many rappers out. I remember sending music around, sending emails all day everyday for damn near two years. Nobody was really giving me the response I wanted. The thing is, because it’s so many rappers, if I’m not referred by somebody, I don’t even wanna listen. Versus singing, somebody can press play, and like three seconds in you might be somebody’s favorite singer off of one song. You don’t gotta hear a whole catalog. It was a no brainer.

Even looking at it now, do you feel like you’re a better singer than you are a rapper?

I still got bars, I just use ‘em differently. I’d say I’m a better singer than I am a rapper at this point because I’ve been sharpening my sword. If I really hopped back into rapping, I’d f--- these n---as up.

Your family, how did they take it when you decided to pursue music full time?

They was not with it. I mean, I wasn’t the best student in school. It would be different if I were to pursue music while I was already in school and doing things for my parents to be proud of and music was a side thing. Being that I dropped everything to do music, they was not with it. I had to move out because I was making too much noise making music in my room. I moved out, then moved to LA and got it poppin’.

Maryland, Charlotte and LA are all places were you've resided. What would you say you learned about yourself in each one of those cities?

In Maryland, I learned how to get fly. That was my hobby. DMV you have to. You gotta be on your shit out there. I was gettin’ fly. I think it just gives you tough skin. Everybody just shitting on each other all day. I definitely embrace being in music because when people say shit about me, it don’t hurt at all because that’s what I grew up around.

In Charlotte, I learned what I didn’t want out of life. I moved to Charlotte and lived with my parents for a little bit. Was making too much music and had to move out, worked at the grocery store and hung out with street n----s. I was learning how this life shit goes and who I want to be. I was doing music while working and just figuring shit out. It schooled me to a lot of game. Musically, too.

LA, shit. I think LA taught be about the business. Being out in LA and being around my manager on a day-to-day basis as opposed to sometimes, and being around during conversations and being independent. And I’m learning how to shine more -- post for pictures and what to say when somebody asks a question. LA taught me how to--

How to move in a room full of vultures.

Yeah, and how to put that final polish on it. That touch.

Which city would you say you found your musical identity?

That’s a good question. I can’t really put it on one place. It’s from everywhere ‘cause even when I was out in LA, and I finally figured out-- Actually, I know where, but it wasn’t in any of those places. It was out in the Dominican Republic when we was doing the [Sonder Son] album. It was because I got the opportunity to learn how to write out shit I went through in retrospect. For the longest time, I would be making music and I would be going through shit and I never really knew how to apply the two.

I knew how to make music and make stuff that sound pretty that the girls are gonna like and it sounds good, you know what I mean? But it never meant much to me like that. Until I went to DR and wrote the album about my life. After that, now going into it, I work the same way and I don’t have to do it in retrospect. I can kind of think of what I’m going through right now and put that shit on.

You’re still in the Sonder group. What are some things that you took from the group that you tried to incorporate into your solo career?  

That shit really taught me how to perform. How to perform with a live band. Those are not just my band members, like, I’d be with them on a day-to-day. My whole lifestyle changed really. We do a lot of shopping and shooting. LA is cool ‘cause, especially with these n----s it’s like, I wake up and smoke or whatever, until I find out what I have to do for the day and check my schedule. If there’s nothing going on, I’m probably gonna go to Fairfax, ball out, hit the photographer homie, take some pictures, hit Dpat and Atu because they flick, too. Take some pictures and go to the studio later on at night, be like “Oh them shit’s crazy.” Throw ‘em on the gram. Honestly, even when I’m not working, I’m working.

I realize how I can take all of that and apply it to my personal shit. Being in a band taught me how to make even the smallest idea I have and turn it into something. For merch, that was the first time I ever did merch. Being able to think of a design and put it out and make a product, just capitalizing off of all the ideas that I had.  

I know you got a Sonder tattoo on the top of your eyebrow. What does it mean to you now as opposed to when you first got it?

A lot more. I’m glad you asked that. I don’t know anybody who’s ever asked me that. It means a lot more. Originally when I got it, I thought it would be some cool shit to do. I thought it was a statement. It means a lot to me but I think what’s so wild is that the meaning of the tattoo is about everybody else. It’s about touching people. I got it because of what it represented, but I wasn’t really touching nobody yet. So now it’s like, real. The tattoo became its own thing. It’s bigger than me.

Tell me the reaction you had when you first got the news about “Crew” being nominated.

I knew it was possible, just because I heard a conversation about how it could happen. I was at my homegirl’s shit, woke up the next morning, turned over and saw that [Goldlink] had call me. I knew if GoldLink called me, it was because we got nominated. I already knew before. I was hyped.

What about the day you guys found out when the record went platinum?

It was gold first, like gold was the first certification. I was hyped to get a record that was certified anything. Once it went platinum, it was like, “It’s outta here.” My mom was more hype about all that stuff than I am.

So now they’re like, “Shit, he did it. He did this shit! [Laughs].”

I been told y’all. I’m hella nonchalant. They’re like, “I can’t believe it!” And I’m like, “I told you.”

The “Burn One (Interlude)” and “First World Problemz / Nobody Carez,” have Lauryn Hill vibes written all over those records. How much did The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill play a role in your music career?

She’s one of my favorite artists. The whole plane ride over to DR, I was listening to Miseducation. That was it. I was like, “F--- that, I gotta make some shit that’s not out right now.” Everybody’s making the same shit, I gotta do something different.

The hook on “First World Problemz / Nobody Carez,” was special. What does it mean to you now? Especially with the newfound success you’ve gained?

That particular hook, it’s funny because the original hook was nothing like that. It was just about death and designer. It was really just about not wanting to die broke. It was about wanting to be fly as shit when I die and all it’s really about is getting this money. Until I went to DR and I was just with the people out there.

It's bad out there, man.

Forreal. They got nothing. The shit that I thought was important, wasn’t important anymore. And I carry that with me. That’s what that record means. I can’t get distracted by all this other shit, like money and cars and all that cool shit. At the end of the day, that’s not what got me here.

How do you feel you’ve grown as a man and artist since A.M. Paradox?

I think I’m more confident. I think people knowing my name prior to me entering a room has something to do with that. I’m just a lot more confident. My sword is sharper. I’m a lot better at what I do. I’m just more comfortable all the way around. I didn’t even used to like cameras and shit but now when I see one, I’m like, “Why is it not on?”

I was talking to your manager Ty about the steps y’all are taking on the independent route. How long do you feel you can sustain in terms of continuing on that route?

Shit, forever. The hard part is out the way. That groundwork and building the fanbase and people who are loyal, building relationships with people that can help you. Once that stuff is done, all I really have to do is not f--- up. I’m the only person that can really f--- this up. That’s what everyone on my team is telling me, Ty is telling me. I’m just trying not to f--- up.

What would you say is the soundtrack to your life right now?

Kanye West’s “Addiction.” He talks about shit that young n---as like, money, girls and weed. We know that shit isn’t really good for you, but it’s all great. Really that song is like my No. 1 right now. Learning the pros and cons of this shit. It has a lot to do with just your overall mental. I like artist that talk about shit that goes on in their head aside from the surface shit.

What would you title this chapter of your life? What word would you use?

Close. Because I’m not where I want to be, but I’m definitely a lot closer than I was.