Spotify’s year-end, wrap-up playlists are here, giving us all a chance to reflect on the music and moments that dominated our respective years. If a song ends up on on your screen after you hit SpotifyWrapped.com and click “connect,” odds are, it was pretty meaningful to you. It probably says something, too, if an album can enter your most played lists for the year just two months after you discover the artist.
That’s what happened for me with Rexx Life Raj.
The 29-year-old rapper/singer from the Bay Area landed on my radar in a serious way in October, with a performance on the Youtube music channel Colors that has since garnered over a million views. By way of comparison, Mick Jenkins, who featured on Uproxx’s 50 Best Albums of 2018 list accumulated just under 900,000 views with a months head start, while Saba, another 2018 best of, accomplished one million over the course of nearly a year (other recent guests have included Jay Rock, 6lack, Gunna, and JID, so an appearance is a pretty big indicator of pending success, one way or another). Since then, I listened to his 2017 full-length, Father Figure 2, enough times for it to take over my most-played songs for the prior six months. It’s that good.
Don’t just take my word for it — it’s a big deal to be compared favorably to Drake, as well, and when Noisey did so around the release of Father Figure 2, they paid him the ultimate compliment, calling his music “a bit like what Drake’s music might sound like if Drake were a hundred times more grounded.” It’s that, but it’s also more political, with overt references to systemic inequality (“Black lives matter ’till you dead on the news / They only put you there so the channel get more views”), it’s more personal (“Even though I get a whole lot of love and people f*ck with me tough / Probably should lay off the Adderall I use as a crutch”), and more uplifting (“Cause they could feel the power that’s coming from our bodies”). Raj himself describes it to me via email as “smooth, melodic, rap-sangin over beautiful chords with BIG WAP underneath.”
That sound carries over to his latest release, a seven-song EP titled California Poppy. “California Poppy is a play on words,” he explains of the unconventional title, which suits his unconventional style. “It’s one of the most beautiful flowers that I’ve seen in the Bay but I rarely see them. Also ‘Poppy’ plays on the Father Figure theme I’ve been running with over the past few years. I felt it would be a perfect title.” The beats, produced by Drew Banga, Kyle Betty, Mikos Da Gawd, and Will Fraker, feature classic neo-soul keys laid over low-rider at the trap house 808s and snares. The booming drums, removed from the sweet tones of the airy instrumentals, could easily soundtrack tales of crack sales and shootouts, but in Raj’s hands, they float, lending a lightness to his sometimes heavy content.
“Look, ’cause I’m in a position to change hella lives,” he ruminates on “The Light.” “I pray to God at night, just hoping that I do it right / I’m battling myself, pop a Xanny when it help / I want Funk to feel like Offset when he got out of jail.” Rappers talk about the position of responsibility they often find themselves in, but Raj tackles both the weight and the hope with equal verve, saying, “I deserve it.” He knows all about accepting the pressure that comes with expectations as well as the fortitude to follow his own path; his sturdy, 6’3 frame granted him the opportunity to play Division 1 college football at Boise State, but after graduation, returned to the pursuit of music instead of the NFL.
Maybe that’s why he’s had the drive and self-possession to forego the usual trappings of Bay Area hyphy rap. If so, that steadfastness has certainly earned him the respect of his hometown stalwarts, from elder statesman E-40, who appears on California Poppy on the track “Sprinkle Me” (which, yes, does pay homage to his 1995 classic of the same name), to pop-rap contemporaries like G-Eazy, who popped up on Father Figure 2 with a signature verse on “Forever Lit.” Meanwhile, Raj’s lighthearted approachability and earnestness are qualities on full display in both the lyrics and the video for “Long Way.” While the song itself boasts that fans and stars alike respect his authenticity (“They f*ck with me the long way”), in the video, fans and strangers alike approach him in jubilant celebration as he participates in the 2018 Golden State Warriors championship parade in his native Oakland.
“You won’t truly understand anything until you understand yourself, or at least attempt to,” he says of his earnest rawness on such tracks. It’s the same earnestness he applies to my inquiries about the choice to put out an EP rather than a full-length follow-up to Father Figure 2. “Kyle Betty and I have been working on music together for the past few years,” he told me. “We wanted to give people the best of what we’ve done. We didn’t want it to be watered-down or drawn out so we kept it short and concise. The big album is almost done, probably a few tracks away. Hopefully, we can put it out sometime early next year.”
If his previous album was magnetic enough to completely overtake a year-end list in only two months, it’s interesting to wonder what effect having the majority of a year for discovery will have on his next one. Provided he brings the same charm, wit, and affable relatability to it, another list placement might be in the offing as well — this time for one of those coveted best of… spots. But even if he misses out on that, it’s clear he’d be okay with it. His goal isn’t year-end lists or platinum records. Instead, it’s simply “to be able to live free and provide for the people around me and not let this music shit take me out of my character because the majority of it is fake anyway.” Good on him for being one of the exceptions.
California Poppy is out now via EMPIRE. Get it here.