Reaching 21 years of age is considered a rite of passage for most young people, but for Brent Faiyaz, who did so just a year ago, the milestone is a little more than a marker of where he's been so far.

By the age of 12, Brent was already making beats and recording music with friends at his house. His poor grades meant he knew he wouldn't be going to college, so when he moved to North Carolina he resorted to working at a grocery store by day and making music in his evenings and weekends. In the past year, though, his hard work has begun to reap rewards: in December, Brent featured on GoldLink's "Crew", and since then he's released the Into project as Sonder, toured the country, and written for Syd's album, Fin. "One thing I liked about working with [Syd] was just her energy. She's down for whatever, she's super laid back about her shit, so whenever I had an idea she'd be like 'Bet, do it'."

The occasion for our chat is his ingenious debut album, Sonder Son. The album comes about a year after A.M. Paradox, an EP that introduced the world to an ambitious R&B auteur. When the EP came out, the term "alternative R&B" was often being used to signify sounds that deviated from the perceived norm of the genre’s bump and grind. These days, while many still reminisce on 90s R&B, filled with its kitschiness and clichés, there is increasingly less need to make those distinctions. It's hard to understate Faiyaz's role in this shift; he is able to represent for the kids just like us, who want to hear music the way we want to hear it. "90s R&B was great but like... it's not the 90s no more".

Sonder Son pushes the envelope even further: It’s a brave, personal and explorative record, one that seems to defiantly skirt the subject of genre entirely. If A.M. Paradox tended to focus on sex, love and relationships, Sonder Son is fully immersed in all of the above, though never at the expense of purposeful songwriting. A collector of sounds and ideas, he references musical touchstones that bubbled up from his Baltimore childhood and into the album: Lauryn Hill, D'Angelo, Radiohead, and Jeff Buckley.

Brent Faiyaz is sure with his words, describing his most revealing work with methodical care. In this conversation, he spoke candidly about the importance of self-awareness, the art of navigating life's most desperate moments, and his debut album, Sonder Son.

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I get the feeling that on this album you touch on a lot of different topics that you may not have shown the world before. What place were you in, mentally, when you were recording Sonder Son?

It was a whole process, I was all over the place. The album is a combination of me being all over the place. There was a time when I was working on the project where I wasn't really going out that much, then another part when I was going out every night, so it's a combination. I did a lot of writing to myself when I was working on it, when I was penning certain things. It wasn't like I was writing it as if I were speaking to anybody, in as much as I really just was speaking to myself. It's all really personal.

How is this different from your EP, A.M. Paradox?

The EP, A.M. Paradox, was mostly about women, it was just a short project about a relationship with a woman, from every angle. And then the Sonder project was similar, but the topics were a little more broad. A.M. Paradox was super surface level, it was about sex and just how I feel when I'm with this woman or that woman, and there's nothing wrong with that. Then with the Into project I got a little more broad with it, I added records like "Sirens" or "Too Fast" where it wasn't just about love. Even the records that were about relationships weren't super specific, so anybody who listened to it could feel what you were saying. It wasn't just that they were connecting with you as a person, but it was just so broad that anybody who heard the music could 'get it'.

With this project, I think I got so in my own head, I never got like that before. I made this project because it was cathartic. I was going through certain shit, then writing about it, and then I'd make a song about it so that I could make myself feel better. So I think the relief, the way people feel when they listen to it is gonna be different than from those two projects. This is more personal in the sense where I made it, really for myself, so that I could learn from it, so that I could learn from the shit that I'm saying. It's like a journal entry almost.

A lot of the conversation about your previous work has been about love and lust, but I hear a lot of intimacy in the album, too, it explores love's many facets, not just the romantic type.

Absolutely. People hear my voice or whatever and automatically think about sex or about how they feel when they're with some girl. I guess that's what goes into being the guy that makes songs that people like to get their freak on to... But love is something that connects all of us, I can have love for something or somebody, whether you wanna sing about it or not, it's not always romantic, it's just real.

What are your expectations for the album, what do you think will happen when people listen to it?

I think that it's gonna bring the fans that I do have, a lot closer to me. I think it's gonna make other music that I put out later mean a little more, because people will learn so much about me through this album. It's one thing putting music out and people liking it because they like the music, and it's another thing for people to get captivated by the whole story. It's one thing to be like, "Oh I like this song" and it's another to say, "I really like this artist" or "I really like this project".

The production has also changed a bit on this project, you can hear traces of older R&B drum patterns in "Talk 2 U", there's the Spanish guitar on "Stay Down", even your voice and melodies show us something different from your prior work.

Yeah, there were about twelve of us who went out to the Dominican Republic to make the major meat of the album. It was me, Dpat, LosHendrix, Nascent, Paperboy Fabe, photographer Mark Peace and a few others. A lot of the sounds that we got for the album were just attributed to the environment that we were in. So because we were in the Dominican Republic when we worked on it, naturally there are a lot of island influences and the Spanish guitar, just because of where we were, physically. A lot of ideas I got were on the way there, when I was just listening to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill.

Why did you pick the Dominican Republic? What is it about that place that drew you there?

Well my family on my dad's side is Dominican and I'm so far removed from that part of my heritage, I had never been there before, I don't speak any Spanish... so I just figured it'd bring a different energy out, and I knew I couldn't have gotten the album done in L.A.

Why do you say that?

There are just too many distractions out there. I feel like I made all the music I really could make in L.A. I can write new material and maybe cut some new material, but I couldn't have done a full body of work in L.A.

When I'm listening to the album, Los Angeles feels like its own character, if that makes sense. What is it about L.A. in particular that speaks to you?

Yeah, definitely! I built my whole team out here. From producers that I've worked with, to my lawyers, to my publishers, they're all in L.A. It's not like some people are just part of the team, I actually spend time with everybody. Also, when I first got to L.A., it was the first time that I was really on my own, in a city where I didn't know anybody, where I was couch surfing all the time. I think naturally when you're spending that much time by yourself you just end up learning a lot about yourself.

Right. There's a line on "First World Problemz / Nobody Carez" that really stood out to me. You sing, "Trials and tribulations often force one to reveal". What was that like, being on your own and being forced to grow up that way?

I feel like it was written. Even going into this album, I feel like the album kind of wrote itself. There were a lot of things that were either in my notebook or that were ideas that I had, but I wasn't really sure how to get them out until I had the opportunity to go to the D.R. and work on everything. It's crazy how certain shit isn't the easiest to speak on when you're going through it, but for some reason when you're looking in retrospect, you learn so much about whatever it was that you were struggling with. I never had stuff just come out so naturally like that, until now.

On that same record, you also sing, “Every day I come late, wash my clothes in the same sink / I don't give a damn about what they think, so long as I pay rent”. What’s the full story behind those lines?

The album is from three places: it starts when I was living and going to high school in Maryland, then it moves onto when I was living in Charlotte, and then to when I moved to L.A. I lived in Charlotte for about two years. At first I was living with my parents because they had just moved out there, but whenever I was working on my music they would always complain that I was making too much noise. Then my brother had an apartment, so we were just working, bullshitting and paying rent. I stayed in the hood because naturally when you're just working at a grocery store you're not making money like that. I felt like I was missing out on things and experiencing first world problems and shit. When I finally got to L.A., I wasn't working anymore, I was just making music full-time. So a lot of the album is actually about what I was doing even before I got to L.A.

Did that experience change the way you approached music?

Absolutely. The weekends were everything to me, because after working all week, I had the weekends to focus on music. That's where "Missing Out" came from, I was feeling like "I'm working on this music, flying back and forth between here and L.A., come fuck with me, I'm about to be lit in like a year". It's one thing to make music because you can, or to make music because you're good at it, but when you do it because you know that if you don't, you're gonna be working at this fucking grocery store forever... music becomes everything.

You've been quite vocal about political injustices on Twitter, and even on this record you insert a short skit saying "Trump doesn't give a fuck". What does it mean to be putting Sonder Son out in the midst of such a politically tense environment?

As a creative, I feel a pressure to speak on shit that's so much bigger than music. Going into this I didn't really have a cause, I didn't really have anything that I stood for, I just made music because it was something that I was good at. And I think a lot of people are afraid to admit that. At the beginning I didn't really have a stance or look at myself like I was going to be a voice for anybody, I just did it because I liked doing it and didn't want to work my job anymore. But interacting with the fans and hearing about what the music meant to them... I don't know, it made me start speaking on shit that was bigger than myself. It's a constant effort, a constant struggle to try to do it. I was never naturally a super outspoken person, I think it's because I get distracted so easily, but that's why I write how I feel as opposed to talk about it.

Part of R&B and soul music’s big contribution to popular music is the insistence on love and feeling, so maybe emphasizing emotionalism at this moment of widespread institutional injustice is a political act unto itself.

Yeah, maybe. I don't really think about it... It's the craziest shit because the moment I start thinking about it, it's not the same anymore. Like what you said, singing about love is a political act, but I wasn't really trying to do that purposefully. So the fact that people take the music and make it sound like it's a reflection of something in the world, or turn it into something bigger than it is, I just love that.

You worked with Diana Gordon on Sonder Son. When did you first meet her and how did that working relationship develop?

Diana's the homie. I met her through my manager, Ty. I think he had played her some of my stuff and she liked it, so she wanted to work when I got back to L.A. Initially when I first started working with her, I didn't like it because she used to frustrate the shit out of me! She was super cool when we were kicking it, but then the moment it was time to work, she was so particular, it was like, "Shit, this is intense". Until recently when I was working on the "All I Want" record and I was having trouble coming up with a hook, I just hit her up and she made it happen.

In terms of your development as a person—as a human being—what has been going on with you over the last couple of months, as you gain fans and attention?

Honestly, I think in every way. I do pretty much everything in a much more thought out way than before, because I know there are a lot of people watching and I have a lot to lose right now, much more so than I had a year or two ago. I'm just a little more calculated in every way—except for when I'm making music, that comes naturally so it's not something I can control—but I give more thought to how the music is presented. I want everything to feel special. I put a real effort into that, a lot more than I used to. Plus, I learn more about what the fans like, they're more vocal about what it is that they like about me.

So do you feel like you cater to fans more, or do you manage not to worry about how people react and do your own thing regardless?

That shit is the hardest thing to manage as an artist. It requires some sort of self-realization. I feel like you have to be really self-aware, you gotta know what it is about you that people fuck with, so that you don't fall off. But at the same time you gotta follow your heart and you can't be the guy who's always trying to do what everybody wants you to do. It's just a weird balance. It's all about walking the line, and you're gonna stumble a little bit, but that's what makes it exciting.

What are you most excited about now in terms of your future?

I'm really excited to tour, to go back on the road for this project. I really like meeting the fans, they always got some really funny shit to say. I never really know how they feel about me or the music until I meet them. So when I finally meet fans they give a lot more than they do on the internet, that shit is way different. There's so much shit going on and people still come out to our shows, that shit is wild. There was Hurricane Harvey and it's crazy because homes were flooded, people had no electricity, all that type of shit, and the fans were still asking us when we were coming. They didn't even have resources, yet they were worried about us coming... I've had fans say they had thought about suicide and shit like that, and I'm thinking that's some wild shit because I don't think about that while I'm making the music. It's just wild that with so much stuff going on, music is actually saving people's lives. That means a lot to me.

Do you feel free?

Man... I thought I would. I thought for sure that once this album was out, tour had finished, that I was about to be on some bullshit, not doing anything for once. But stuff always manages to come up. So I feel free to an extent, but I know that I can't lose focus. There's still a lot of shit I got left to do.

To celebrate the release of Sonder Son, Brent curated a 90's playlist compiled of tracks he's inspired by. Sonder Son is available now on all platforms.