When we met up with the Vancouver-based singer-songwriter Aaron Hoffman, who makes moody, gold-toned R&B under the moniker SonReal, he was in the middle of a busy day of promo. His debut album, One Long Dream, had dropped that day, and SonReal was indulging in the excitement. “I find right now, today, to be one of the best days of my life,” he says, leaning back in his seat and sipping from his beer. Call it cliché, but it was hard not to notice his enthusiasm for the album he’s been writing his whole life.
Growing up in Vernon, B.C., SonReal remembers that musical mentors were hard to come by. “It’s not like I grew up in Toronto and could talk about Kardinal [Offishall] and say ‘ya, someone from my city is killing it right now on a global scale,’” he explains. Without having access to a recording studio, he went to a local Radio Shack and bought a $40 mic to hook up to his computer, describing the process as “quite trying.”
Early on, SonReal already had big aspirations for himself. He recalls telling his father that he was going to be the “biggest rapper in the world” when he was 17. “He asked me about the steps I was taking to get there,” which SonReal admits having no response to. It was at that point he decided to “outwork everyone and keep writing” as a means to use music to set the trajectory of his life.
As a teenager, SonReal listened to a lot of Nas; his love of music and skateboarding (he’s been skating since he was 10) couldn’t exist without one another, and the natural relationship between the two inspire much of his lyrical content. “With skateboarding you’re always doing it by yourself or with your group of friends, which is similar to songwriting, but like, for us, we were always running away from the police and shit ‘cause they would be trying to kick us out of spots, so it felt like I was an outcast in my own city,” he laughs. “This is what we did as kids though—listened to music and skated.” While this may be the first mainstream record to SonReal’s name, he’s quick to acknowledge its significance. For him, “everything’s been epic.”
It’s an approach that has seen him pull from a wide range of influences that now inform his personal brand of hustle. SonReal will rap about the drive and determination of basketball superstars like Steph Curry one minute, only to openly gush about his admiration of Mobb Deep the next. He’s also casually poetic in a way that makes you think that every conversation could form the foundation of a new song; SonReal is quick to throw out lines like “the only thing I did right was never give up.”
That’s not to say SonReal’s road to success has always been easy. He was supposed to release an album last year, as part of his brief contract with Capital Records, but nothing came of it. He got dropped by the label and lost his father the day before a scheduled 30-day tour. Much of what you hear on One Long Dream is SonReal interrogating these low points in his life and more generally, his feelings of alienation. It’s these moments coupled with his ‘chin-up’ attitude that paint one One Long Dream with an air of reality and resilience. “This album is about my journey of finding happiness, finding what it is about me that in its truest form, I can express to everybody” he explains. “I’ve watched people literally go from not believing in me to those same people coming and standing front row at my shows.”