With Drake and Justin Bieber co-signs, Long Beach's Giveon looks to spin his R&B into Grammy gold

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In July, the Long Beach singer Giveon played to tens of thousands at Lollapalooza in Chicago, the first festival of his short but ambitious R&B career.

“I really wasn’t sure how it would go,” said the richly baritoned 26-year-old a day before a headline gig at New York’s Irving Plaza. Giveon still vividly recalls playing to two dozen friends at South Bay bars just a few years ago.

Whatever catharsis the crowd went looking for that weekend, they found it in his emotionally ransacked ballads.

“To have the sound I have, to pretty much close out a festival, it’s something I didn’t see much of in school,” he said. “It was always pop singers and rappers. It’s so cool to see that space for R&B getting bigger.”

That could be true on Grammy night as well. The singer, born Giveon Evans, is up for five awards in January, including top categories like record and song for his contributions to Justin Bieber and Daniel Caesar’s lithe single “Peaches.”

That song is, by far, the biggest of Giveon’s fast rise in music — his debut EP just came out in 2020. But for R&B fans, it’s a happy surprise to see a young singer with a striking timbre and era-spanning tastes glimpse pop stardom.

“I think if you go back to the ’60s and ’70s, that music felt newer, you were hearing stories told for the first time,” he said of the golden eras for chart-topping, consciousness-changing soul. “But fast-forward 50 years and kids are forced to change it or it’ll sound redundant.”

This isn’t Giveon’s first pass at a Grammy. He was nominated last year for his “Take Time” EP, later compiled with its follow-up, “When It’s All Said and Done." He’s seen some Billboard Hot 100 success as well, guesting with Drake on “Chicago Freestyle” and sending his own “Heartbreak Anniversary” to No. 16.

That single, a gorgeous breakup-fixation ballad with its “Still got your things here / And they stare at me like souvenirs,” is up for R&B song this year. That more writer-centric award holds particular significance for him.

“If you take the music away and just read the lyrics, it could be a poem,” he said. “You’re not sure what decade it’s in, and songs like that will always be timeless.”

But “Peaches,” which hit No. 1, did two novel things at once for him.

It announced Giveon as a riveting vocalist in pop’s upper reaches, with a one-of-a-kind tone that instantly announces some real pain is afoot. And given Bieber’s insistence that the Grammys should count his recent material in R&B (“For this not to be put into that category feels weird,” he said of 2020’s “Changes”), Giveon lends him some credibility on that front too.

“I have such a personal life history with R&B — it’s the first music I remember hearing, and it feels like a family tradition," Giveon said, recalling his mom playing him Luther Vandross and Anita Baker records. He said his only assignment for “Peaches” was for “everyone to be themselves. I’m just so grateful to amass those kinds of ears within my first year.”

Giveon grew up in Long Beach with two brothers and a single mom; he wrestled at Long Beach Polytechnic High School and discovered his vocal abilities at a Grammy Museum camp for young artists.

"He inherited a real understanding of that classic period of R&B from his mother, who had an appreciation of that music when it was at its height," said Sylvia Rhone, the chief executive of Giveon's label Epic Records. "His ability to make those narratives relatable really resonates with young women."

While his hometown might be canonically known for G-funk and gangsta rap, its mix of throwback and future-minded music left a deep impression on him as a teen.

“It’s notorious for Snoop Dogg, but a lot of people fail to realize it’s a duality. There’s a big eclectic art scene, and it’s a jazzy city as well, where I get a lot of my melodies and tone,” he said.

The area also has yielded challenging, compelling stars like Frank Ocean and Miguel, who pushed classic songwriting into the TikTok era. They set a template for the kind of career Giveon hoped for at the outset: “Miguel for raw talent, Frank for storytelling and mystique,” he said.

“There aren’t many venues in Long Beach, so I’d be doing a show to 30 people seated, where everyone’s looking at just you,” he continued. “I knew right away that I should just run through my set as if I’m telling a story, and have a real way of speaking onstage too. I saw the reaction to that.”

But for much of his recent rise, he wasn’t able to gauge much reaction at all. “Take Time” came out on March 27, 2020, an inauspicious moment to be asking anyone to pay attention to a new artist. He had producer Sevn Thomas (of Rihanna’s “Work” and Drake’s “Pop Style”) at the helm, and he’d played a brief run of opening dates for Swedish singer Snoh Aalegra. But back then, Giveon was unsure if it was even worth putting out a record.

“Initially, I had no idea if we even wanted to do it. No one knew how to operate,” he said. “We decided to let it happen and not think too much. I just stayed inside and worked, tried to build my craft with no eyeballs on me.”

The pace has picked up since the fall. In September, he released the new single “For Tonight,” which pushes his sound into widescreen, falsetto-flirting terrain. It’s a bigger scale to accommodate a fast-rising artist, one now just a few dates into his first headline tour.

"When you see him on stage, you really think of him as a seasoned performer even though his repertoire is relatively new," Rhone said. "The audience is singing the songs word-for-word."

He hasn't made definitive Grammy night plans yet but he's crossing his fingers that a "Peaches" live performance with Bieber works out for the telecast — "I'm just gonna put that out in the air here," he said hopefully. Whether it’s long-delayed live dates or stardom that’s way ahead of schedule, he’s grateful to have so much happening at once.

“I was prepared for this to happen in maybe year five,” Giveon said. “It's really cool that everyone is finally going to see shows again, that people are dressing up and getting ready for you. I feel that’s one of the highest art forms, and it’s a privilege to have that.”

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.