Giveon Explains His Quick Rise, Songwriting Approach and The Impact of a Drake Collaboration

As a new class of R&B artists continues to prosper in 2020, one rookie is outperforming the competition with his shrewd pen game. Long Beach native Giveon has distinguished himself with his plumed vocals, gutsy outlook on romance, and untapped potential as an A-list songwriter.

After working low-end jobs — he was a mascot for Bubba Gump Shrimp Co., and a dog walker for people in his neighborhood — the quick-witted crooner chose to devote himself to music. In February, Giveon earned his first million streams with the amorous “Like I Want You.” The following month, he released his Take Time EP, which proved to be a masterclass in love and heartbreak for twenty-somethings on a maddening pursuit for answers. “Heartbreak Anniversary” is fueled by disappointment in a partner, while “Favorite Mistake” acknowledges the thrill of cheating and staying tight-lipped about it.

Giveon’s quick rise has included co-signs from SZA, Snoh Aalegra, and Drake; in March, the latter gifted fans a hearty two-pack for rap purists with “When to Say When” and “Chicago Freestyle,” featuring the budding singer. Last month, the song rocketed to No. 14 on the Hot 100, giving Giveon his highest entry on the charts.

Billboard spoke to Giveon about quitting his day jobs to become a full-time artist, how his wide range of influences shaped him musically and which female R&B singer he would do an EP with today.

You previously worked at Bubba Gump, and wore a shrimp costume before your career took off. When did that epiphany of wanting to pursue music happen? 

I had side jobs before, like under-the-table stuff, but that was my first job pretty much. I was there for a while. When I started working there, I was trying to discover myself as an artist, but I was there for years. So I got to a point of almost where I am now. I mean, obviously I’ve gotten more guidance through the amazing people I’ve been around, but I felt like I was ready. I’m big on manifestation. I have a board now and everything is checked off. So that started back then. I’m very much like whatever is going to happen will happen.

But it was a random day and I was standing in the suit. A kid wanted a picture. [laughs] You’re not even supposed to talk in the suit, ’cause shrimps don’t talk. The kid wanted a picture and I was like, “Nah, man.” [laughs] I said it aloud, like, “I’m not doing this. It’s time for me to go.” I was so fed up. I left with no plan, no money or anything. I was doing unemployment for a little bit and then I started a dog-walking business in my neighborhood. I went to FedEx and started printing out some flyers and hung them up around my neighborhood. Then I started walking people’s dogs for a couple months. I actually seen a tweet recently that was like, “Giveon used to walk my dog, but he told me he quit ’cause he started really talking music seriously.”

Speaking on manifestation, earlier this year, you said you wanted to get your first million streams and then on your birthday, “Like I Want You” did just that. 

Yeah, it kind of just reassured me on the power of belief. So I’m kind of like, “Yo. I should just write something crazy — like a crazy goal — and maybe it’ll happen.” Like, “I want to go to the moon,” or some sh-t, and just maybe, just ’cause I wrote it down, it’ll happen. I’m so driven by that and I’m also driven by hard work, but I don’t just put it out in the universe and sit there. There has to be some action too and surrounding myself with people that are better than me and that know more than me. I think I found a combination of what it takes to learn. Learning is the biggest key.

You were 18 when you put out your first EP in 2013. How would you say you’ve grown as an artist and songwriter since then?

The way I was learning, I was only going on YouTube and I was literally typing in “greatest artists of all time” and then just see what they were doing different from me. That’s kind of what I was doing at first, but what accelerated that process was being around my management team. I’m fortunate enough that they manage some of the best producers in the world, and they’re able to put me around some of the best writers in the world. Just listening, being in the right room and being able to be a sponge and absorb all of that free information because that’s information people would die for [is amazing]. I’m lucky enough to just have that at my will pretty much.

You said in a previous interview that you used to write short stories and that kind of transitioned into you writing songs. Do you feel that kind of process or background gives you an upper hand in comparison to a lot of artists?

It’s all subjective. Whoever is listening, sometimes, they just want an easy listen. Like they don’t want something that’s too serious and elusive, but for me, I think that’s what drives people towards me. Yeah, I used to write short stories at first, but once you work on something, you want to show people. My peers weren’t interested in me reading 30-40 pages to them. It started off bad. It started off with a sense of impatience and wanting a sense of instant gratification for what I’ve done. But that impatience transformed into me wanting to shorten those stories so I can get the feedback that I wanted right away. I think even the way I structured my songs, they are all in order.

The first line kind of sets the tone of the song and the last line of the verse wraps up what the verse is about. So it helps me move the story along and it also helps me with dialogue too. In writing, when character development enters, dialogue can honestly make or break film or television. Now, with my approach to writing, I’m kind of taking the dialogue approach, too. Now, I’m even more relatable. I feel like I might go back into writing.

Which song from your Take Time EP can you see yourself making a short story or film out of? I feel like “Heartbreak Anniversary” would be some sh-t. 

Exactly. I was just going to say that. I feel like “Heartbreak Anniversary” or “Like I Want You” because I feel like both have so much depth to them and they have a lot of stuff that wasn’t told in the story. “Heartbreak Anniversary” just talks about the break-up. It doesn’t talk about what led to the break-up. Or I would really think “Favorite Mistake’ too. That I think would be the best one because there’s so many angles you can go to with that. It could be before the mistake happens or you going back to the situation you had and have a story about that. There’s so many different ways you can tell that story. So I’ll say “Favorite Mistake,” for sure.

Is there a mistake from a past relationship that still haunts you to this day?

My approach to writing is, it’s either going to be a personal story about me and what I’ve personally been through, or it’s going to be inspired by a friend. This particular one was inspired by a mistake that a friend made [rather] than a specific mistake. As far as overall mistakes [for me], there have been mistakes that I’ve made in relationships, but it would be more so like, “I wish I communicated this better,” or maybe even like a little white lie. Nothing detrimental, but probably a simple white lie that drove a wrench to the relationship that didn’t have to be told in the first place.

What was the craziest reaction when people found out you were on Drake’s “Chicago Freestyle”? 

I don’t think I’ve had anything absurd, but people’s behavior has kind of switched. Not too much in a negative way, but people I’ve talked to before, they’re kind of more nervous now. I’m not sure why. Like my friend’s little cousin, I would talk to him all the time. I FaceTimed him recently and he was so shy that he couldn’t speak. I was like, “I was just talking to you two months ago.” Even though a lot happened in two months, it’s interesting to see the perception of me now. That’s like the craziest thing, how the perception switched overnight.

Initially, when the song came out, everyone thought it was Sampha at the beginning. Did that comparison bother you? 

Nah, well, I’m okay with people if they felt like it sounds similar to something. I wasn’t too bothered by the, “He sounds like Sampha,” but when they were like, “That is Sampha.” I was like, “Alright. I love Sampha, but it’s not [him] though.” Probably even Sampha would be like, “Yo. It’s not me.” He probably has a way that he writes that he wouldn’t want people to think that he’s writing a song like this. I wouldn’t say I was bothered in that way, especially in a sense of how talented Sampha is. That’s in my book the highest form of flattery. Sampha is one of my goats. That’s an amazing comparison for me, personally. I didn’t really see anything negative.

You have an interesting list of influences, whether it be a Frank Sinatra, Frank Ocean, or Sampha. How have those artists inspired you musically?

I feel like at this point in the world of just creating anything, you’re not going to be able to create anything new. I think the closest thing you’re going to get to originality is a mixture of influences. That’s what’s going to make you unique, taking other unique elements and putting those together. Also, each of those people on the list that I have are solely responsible for the sound. And each of those people, I didn’t just wake up one day and just handpick ’em. Like they all elevated not only my craft, but my self-esteem as an artist.

A lot of those names are pioneers of what they do. If I’ve never heard of Frank Sinatra, I would literally think [singing in baritone] was weird, especially in Long Beach. You don’t hear stuff like that. With Frank Ocean, I come from a world of writing. I wasn’t hearing that in R&B. It was explicit or right on the nose saying, “Yo. I want to go to this girl’s house.” Any writer wouldn’t just say “I want to go to a girl’s house,” but in R&B, that’s what they’ll sing — “I wanna pull up on you.” I was writing it differently and Frank Ocean let me know that that wasn’t weird.

With Sampha, yeah I love Frank Sinatra, but he had a full orchestra and band behind him. I wasn’t used to hearing someone with a tone like that over a stripped-down piano or even uptempo beats. Sampha normalized that for me, too. So it’s just a bunch of people where  I kind of had these styles and I’ve just seen them and they normalized it for me. Then, I was like, “Oh, this is cool to do.”

Which female R&B artist could you see yourself doing a 5-6 track EP with right now?

That’s interesting. I think what I would look for in that is a tone that complements mine and I think the closest tone-wise would be Snoh Aalegra. She has one of those smoky, smooth tones too. I think that would be interesting, ’cause say I did a project with someone and we announced it, I would want people to be not sure on how it would sound in their head. I don’t think people wouldn’t know what a Giveon and Snoh EP would sound like.

Watch Giveon’s “Favorite Mistakes (Acoustic) video below.