Rap has always been aspirational, a quality that isn’t inherently bad, but also one that has grown more onerous and deflating for the listener as the subject matter has changed from flaunting jewelry to boasting about social media clout. Berkeley, California’s Rexx Life Raj wants to inspire you to do better, but on a much more holistic level. That’s why his bars are peppered with motivational gems (“In a year just don’t be where you was,” he offers on the track ‘Father Figure’), along with quotes about living harmoniously and learning from mistakes.
“I’ve been trying to focus on the details and at the same time, it’s a juxtaposition because I’ve been battling this thing of trying to be as free as possible, and not being constrained by too much,” said Raj. “I’m trying my best to balance both worlds, to be hella laser-focused and still be as free as possible.”
Don’t get it twisted though, Raj isn’t stepping into the booth and dropping corny ‘90s sports movie aphorisms (though he would be qualified to do so, he played four years of football at Boise State). He’s a descriptive, often humorous lyricist with the capacity to crank out late-night club records and a keen ear for melodies that will likely make him a must-have guest feature in the future.
A prolific worker, Raj rarely drops a project unless he’s laid the groundwork with a handful of high quality singles that expound on similar lyrical and musical themes but rarely wind up appearing on the final product. His last mixtape, Father Figure, dropped in June 2016, and he’s already prepping a new solo project and a collaborative record with fellow Bay Area rhymer YMTK.
What makes Raj’s music so compelling, and what makes you want to listen when he offers advice, is that he does a better job than the vast majority of artists in making his music function as a timestamp for a particular moment. Whether he’s chiding someone for being thrifty in the club (“VIP you paying $10 at the door / In my section drinking Henn' from the store,” he raps on “Shit ‘n Floss”) or reacting to the systematic murder of African-Americans by law enforcement (“Black lives lay on the curb / They say we matter, that's only words / Watch us swimming in pools of blood / While the world seems undisturbed,” he seethes on ‘Running Man’), Raj’s records are always a window into his day-to-day reality.
“I think I get that because my favorite rappers are the ones that did that. My favorite rappers are those who are not hella braggadocios and were real, where you can listen to the album and feel like you know the artist,” he said, citing Kid Cudi’s ‘Man on the Moon: The End of the Day’ as a watershed record. “For me, all my music is based in reality to the point where it’s already conceptual, because I’ve just been being real this whole time and talking about the shit that I’ve been going through.”
Raj returned to Berkeley from Idaho in 2012 to a very different landscape both personally and musically. Some of his close friends were dead or in jail, many others had left the Bay. The transition back was a challenge for Raj, a true extrovert and natural social facilitator, who had to adjust to riding solo whilst working for his parents’ package delivery company.
“I feel like that’s when I grew the most because I was alone so much, and I had time to figure myself out and figure out how I want to move and craft my skills because I had all that alone time,” Raj said. “So that first year when I was out was like the biggest growing age for me, and then things started to fall into place after that.”
Ever diligent and determined, Raj rebounded quickly, and is now on the forefront of an explosion of Bay Area talent including artists like P-Lo and Nef the Pharoah who are pushing their region’s sound far beyond the souped-up hyphy stereotype from the late 2000s.
“I compare it a lot to Chicago, like after you got past the Commons and Kanyes, all that Chicago was really known for was drill music at that point when Chief Keef dropped Don’t Like,’” Raj explained. “But then you started seeing other people bubble over like Chance the Rapper, Vic Mensa, Mick Jenkins, Noname, all these other artists started coming out and showing that there was a whole other side to Chicago that we didn’t even know about that’s fucking lit. I feel like that same thing is happening to the Bay, we were known for the hyphy movement, which is tight, but the Bay has so much more to give.”
There’s more music on the horizon - Raj estimated he recorded 80 tracks for his upcoming project – and no sign that his industrious everyman charm is on the wane. Clearly, Raj has positioned himself as one of the most refreshing and incisive voices in rap.
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Words: Grant Rindner