A truth became piercingly evident as Brent Faiyaz's aching falsetto cut through a sold-out U Street Music Hall on Wednesday night: Sonder fully acknowledges its pedigree.
The trio, composed of the Maryland-born singer and producers Dpat and Atu, has harvested an appreciation for '90s R&B into a sound that pays homage to that influence while establishing an identity of its own. The group's "Into" EP, released in January, is a collection of syrupy ballads blending the vulnerability of Faiyaz's vocals with a quiet storm feel that's distinctly modern despite obvious traces of the genre's past. Faiyaz gained notoriety this year for contributing the smooth chorus on D.C. rapper GoldLink's breakout hit "Crew," which is rich in its Jeep-ready, '90s hip-hop and R&B crossover aesthetic. Wednesday night's performance was uneven at times but affirmed Sonder's promise while appealing to fans with vivid memories of the decade the group uses as a reference point as well as those born into it.
Forgoing salutations, Sonder began the evening with "Feel," where Faiyaz positions himself as the guilty pleasure his lover can't abandon. "And I chose you, 'cause you're all I need/And you chose your man, but your man ain't me," Faiyaz sang confidently. "Searchin" slinked along in a live setting, making the singer's velvet-tongued come-hithers feel all the more enticing. The tender notes and sultry finger snaps carried "Care" as much as Faiyaz's breathy declarations of love thanks to the group's understanding of the value of brevity and the power of mood. Hence the swing of "One Night Only," which combined a brief sample of a phone dialing with syncopation reminiscent of Somethin' for the People's 1997 house party staple, "My Love Is the Shhh!"
After deploying the icy "Lovely" (which also appears on Faiyaz's 2016 EP "A.M. Paradox"), the trio honored their influences during a brief departure from their catalogue. Their rendition of Brandy's "I Dedicate" was followed by two bold choices: spirited attempts at Jodeci's 1994 hit, "Feenin,'" and Prince's 1982 classic, "Do Me Baby." The latter was punctuated by Faiyaz flirtatiously engaging female fans while the band played on, but ultimately went on too long. The encore of "Too Fast" restored order thanks to a killer guitar solo after the mid-song tempo switch that brought the evening to a cathartic, yet abrupt ending.
At a time when '90s babies are often unjustly criticized for their indifference toward the musical canons of yesterday, Sonder's love of the '90s proves they're willing to do the research. The polish will come with time.