Three years ago, Giveon landed a 15-minute tour slot opening for Baby Rose and Snoh Aalegra. There was only one problem: At the time, he had released just two original songs. Needing new tunes in a hurry to fill out his set, the R&B singer decided to write something quickly based on each city the tour landed in. One of these, the spare, chilling “Chicago Freestyle,” proved particularly popular when he posted a snippet to Instagram — until Giveon got a message from his manager, Simon Gebrelul, telling him to delete the clip.
“That was his most engaged post on Insta,” says Gebrelul, who also manages A-list producers like Boi-1da, Jahaan Sweet, and Sevn Thomas, and considers Drake a “good friend.” “I felt bad telling him to delete it,” Gebrelul continues, “but I’m like, ‘Trust me.'” Unknown to Giveon, his manager had sent the “Chicago Freestyle” snippet to Drake, and the superstar had expressed interest in using the clip in one of his own songs.
Giveon’s momentum wasn’t slowed down for long: Soon, Drake turned that “Chicago Freestyle” snippet into a song on his 2020 album, Dark Lane Demo Tapes, amassing close to 400 million streams on Spotify alone. The Drake feature served as a springboard for one of R&B’s most notable breakouts in recent memory. Giveon has followed it with aching, slow-rolling hits like “Heartbreak Anniversary” and “For Tonight” — anguished ballads that showcase his quivering baritone. That distinctive voice has helped him stand out on TikTok, where “Heartbreak Anniversary” has been used in more than 2 million videos, and pop radio, where “For Tonight” recently cracked the Top 20.
That success is part of why Giveon’s manager calls him “an anomaly.” “He has a very mature sounding voice,” Gebrelul notes proudly. “I knew it would grab people, like, ‘This is a breath of fresh air in the R&B world.’ I didn’t think he would grab the youth the way he did.”
When Giveon’s voice first started changing in middle school, he says, it took him by surprise. “It was a baritone,” the singer, 27, explains. “I had no idea how to use it.”
It wasn’t until the end of high school that he attended a program at the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles and “gained confidence and comfort” with his voice after someone encouraged him to listen to Frank Sinatra’s rendition of “Fly Me to the Moon.” Until that moment, Giveon recalls, “I hadn’t heard anyone that sounded like me.”
He still harbored a deep attachment to the R&B his mother played around the house when he was growing up — classics from Anita Baker and Sade, and other artists who made vocal acrobatics sound easy. “I was associating being an artist with being a vocalist that could sing all types of riffs and runs and belt,” Giveon says. Sinatra, in contrast, “wasn’t going over the top with being a powerhouse vocalist. He had that tone, and that carried you through the song.”
At a time when much of the singing in R&B mimics the cadences and delivery of hip-hop, Giveon’s tone immediately set him apart. When Antonio Dixon, a veteran songwriter-producer who’s worked with Beyoncé and Toni Braxton, first heard Giveon, he thought he was listening to a record played at the wrong speed. “I love his voice now,” adds Dixon, who co-wrote “For Tonight.” “It’s got a richness to it; it’s really warm.”
Mjeema Pickett, Spotify’s head of R&B/Soul, was drawn to Giveon’s singing when she saw him perform on that same first tour with Snoh Aalegra. “I wasn’t expecting his voice to sound like that,” Pickett remembers. “I was like, ‘Who is this kid?’ ”
Another early admirer of Giveon’s was Sevn Thomas, the producer behind juggernauts like Rihanna’s “Work.” One day, Thomas and Gebrelul invited Giveon to come through the Record Plant in L.A. when some time opened up unexpectedly. The singer was turning 24 at midnight, but he blew off any plans and showed enough promise in that session to earn a second. At the second session, he made “Like I Want You,” a gnawing ballad that became his first radio hit.
“Like I Want You” appeared on Giveon’s debut EP, Take Time, in 2020, along with another disconsolate track, “Heartbreak Anniversary.” The latter was written a year after one of Giveon’s relationships ended. “Let’s say it’s your anniversary, a good anniversary,” he says. “You’re probably gonna bring some flowers, some balloons, some chocolate. But now, what would all those things look like if they had been sitting there for an entire year? That’s the image that starts the song.”
Withered flowers and moldy chocolate might not sound like the makings of a viral trend, but TikTok users latched onto the vivid lines in “Heartbreak Anniversary.” “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised” at its success, Giveon says. “But what was also great was it had this moment, [and then] people stopped and listened to the song and decided they actually liked it.”
As Giveon works on his debut album, one of the most promising demos he’s been working on can be found on Instagram, just like the original “Chicago Freestyle.” It’s similarly bare-bones — just Giveon singing in front of a piano played by Jahaan Sweet. The piano player sketches an outline of a melody, letting notes hang and linger, while Giveon sings about the temptation that comes with his newfound fame, earnestly but painfully. At one point, Sweet seems to whistle quietly, amazed at one of his collaborator’s vocal flourishes.
Giveon predicts that this track will appear on the album in some form, because “a lot of people would be upset if it didn’t.” For now, it lives on Instagram. But he’d probably pull it off the platform if Gebrelul asked him, too. “I don’t think he’s ever going to question me telling him to take down a post again,” the manager says.