“We live in a world where people expect the artist to just be the same person they were five years ago,” says Giveon from the recording studio of his West Hollywood condo. “I don’t understand that.”
Case in point: Five years ago, Giveon worked at Bubba Gump Shrimp Co. in Long Beach, Calif., a 21-year-old who made music in his free time. Today, creating undeniably arresting R&B has become his full-time gig. In the past year alone, he has gone from that relatively unknown voice on Drake’s “Chicago Freestyle” to a singular star with multiple Billboard hits, including his breakthrough top 20 solo outing, “Heartbreak Anniversary.” He’s also coming off a Grammy Award nomination for best R&B album and a win for best new artist at the BET Awards.
Yet within a music market in which R&B artists often contort their sounds to fit the mainstream, Giveon has stayed true to the style that he embraced as a wide-eyed service-industry worker a half-decade ago. For instance, “Peaches,” Justin Bieber’s Billboard Hot 100 chart-topper featuring Giveon and Daniel Caesar, finds Bieber’s pop-radio aesthetic channeling Giveon’s soulful approach, not the other way around. “I don’t see myself staying in the same pocket forever,” says Giveon, “but I also don’t see myself abandoning the sound that I’ve naturally loved.”
Since penning his first song at the age of 11 following a fifth-grade breakup, Giveon has strived to write music that “takes the words out of [your] mouth. Ever since that moment, I always tried to touch on relatability as the starting point. If one person understands where I’m coming from, I know there’s going to be a world of people who relate.”
That approach contrasts with the baritone crooner’s public persona, where much of his personal life remains unknown (“I’m literally nothing like what people would think,” he says), but one that has proven to be effective. After self-releasing a pair of singles, Giveon signed to Not So Fast/Epic Records in 2019. He has since released two EPs, which were combined with one new track to make up his March deluxe album, When It’s All Said and Done… Take Time. The set debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200 and peaked at No. 2 on the Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums chart.
All the while, Giveon was also enjoying the delayed success of his nostalgic 2020 single, “Heartbreak Anniversary.” Over a year after its release, the track went viral on TikTok in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia before crossing over to the United States, where it climbed to No. 16 on the Hot 100 and topped the Mainstream R&B/Hip-Hop Airplay chart.
“Based on these analytics, we took a new view of the song and prioritized the crossover and pop playlist with our streaming partners and took the song to all three radio formats simultaneously,” says Epic Records chairman/CEO Sylvia Rhone. “It was the perfect storm for the release of the deluxe album.” Says Giveon’s co-manager Simon Gebrelul: “I expected Giveon’s career to blossom into what it is right now. But if I told you I expected it to happen this quickly, I’d be lying.”
Giveon says he has never been in a rush to find success, but being in lockdown during the pandemic helped accelerate his personal and musical development. It’s an experience that he feels artists today are too often deprived of: “You make a song, you put it on the internet, and then you feel like you’re ready. Just because I made ‘Heartbreak Anniversary’ and it did what it did doesn’t mean I’m anywhere near the artist I should be yet.” But being able to break through with a straightforward R&B ballad — one Rhone calls a “watershed” moment for the genre — showed fans the kind of artist he plans to be.
Now working on a new studio album, Giveon is trying to stay grounded amid his recent wins. “Making something that people liked could be just as detrimental as making something that people didn’t like,” he says. “They go hand in hand because once they like it, they just want the next thing even faster.”
He’s doing his best to deliver, noting that he hopes the project will arrive before the end of the year and that his growth will be evident on the album. “From the birth of me as an artist, [I thought], ‘What if people don’t like my voice? What if people say these songs coming from a man are too emotional and vulnerable?’ ” he recalls. He finally learned to stop asking those questions — and embrace those vulnerabilities. “The things that make you insecure,” he says, “are what make people gravitate to you.”