On Friday night, R&B singer Brent Faiyaz opened his concert at Union Stage with the lyric, “I remember being scared to go home.” Soon, the 22-year-old Columbia, Md., native would prove he had nothing to fear.
For the last decade, contemporary R&B has taken its cues from hip-hop, its singers cloaking their voices in AutoTune and using 808s to soundtrack their heartbreaks. But there’s a quiet storm brewing, and the pendulum has swung back to the genre’s classic sound. Faiyaz is a part of this wave, taking notes from Lauryn Hill, D’Angelo and Babyface, and his debut album, “Sonder Son,” leaves plenty of room for him to wield melisma and falsetto like a blade cutting through gentle beats and Spanish guitar.
Backed by a crisp three-piece band, Faiyaz proved the voice on the record isn’t the result of studio trickery. He hit all the notes that power his songs about the push and pull of love, lust and life in general, from the guitar-powered grooves of “All I Want” and “Talk 2 U” to the bluesy syrup of “Invite Me” and “Insecure.” He started the night in wraparound shades and a parka but eventually warmed up (physically and metaphorically), shedding both and revealing sleepy eyes that sold sexuality. Squealing fans in the front rows reached out to hold hands with him, and thanks to the layout of the new 450-head venue, no one was more than a few yards from the action.
Sometimes he sold himself short, though, dedicating the acoustic ballad “Burn One” to the “smokers” in the audience. The song packs a universe of broken hearts into just two verses; it isn’t really about pot smoke. (That wasn’t the case with his performance, the second half of which seemed to suffer as he frequently stopped songs for water or air, admitting that he got “smacked” before the show.)
Faiyaz’s songs are deceptive that way; he imbues workaday experiences — overdrawing a bank account, waiting for a friend to pick him up from Starbucks on a cold night — with delicate power. But for all its relatability, “Sonder Son” is his story, no song more so than “L.A.,” a sunburned take on chasing California dreams that he dedicated to everyone in school, working a job or “chasing something people say you can’t do.” The song’s last lyric served as his mission statement: “It’s all about making something that’s all in all bigger than anything I’d ever known.”
Those big dreams were partially realized last year, when Faiyaz sang the hook on GoldLink’s Grammy-nominated best rap/sung performance contender “Crew.” Faiyaz encored with the song but directed the audience to sing along with the record, rather than singing it himself. He seemed jaded, bored with his biggest hit already. Not wanting to be pigeonholed is an honest impulse, but there’s no need to be “in a rush to grow up,” as he sang on “Gang Over Luv.” He could stand to be present and enjoy this moment, because — as he promised on “Missin Out” — he’s going to “be someone to know soon.”