…and hard work, and strong collaborators…but also the burrito bowls at Berkeley Bowl.
Rexx Life Raj is committed to repping Berkeley. It’s one of the first things you come to notice listening to Father Figure, the rapper’s most recent studio effort released earlier this year. The record is littered with passing allusions to his hometown, a city he’s spent his entire life in minus an undergraduate education in Boise, where he played D1 football on scholarship. He sings the praises of burrito bowls from Berkeley Bowl, likens Telegraph Avenue to the fast life, and shouts out local heroes Green Day as the scale of his own ambitions for a legacy. You get the sense leaving a Rexx Life Raj tape that Berkeley is his defining influence, and that he’s himself one of the definitive voices currently rising from the Bay.
Raj has been rapping since the sixth grade, and even while attending school in Idaho he never managed to escape hip-hop’s gravitational pull. “I would always be thinking, ‘Damn, what if instead of going to college I just did music?’” he told me during a conversation at his Berkeley studio, a refashioned office space from his parents’ delivery business where Raj works during the daytime before descending like a superhero into rap at night. Even when his life as a student and athlete was the primary focus, he still managed the time to commit his words to record: “I was the dude at the dorm room with the mic at his door. I was the dude, when I got a house, I had a mic in the closet.”
Upon graduation, Raj immediately returned to where his heart was always waiting. “It was never a thing of ‘if’ I wanted to come back, it was like I knew whenever I was done I would be back,” said Raj. Since resettling in the Bay he hasn’t wasted a minute of momentum, and right now Raj is riding a stride that’s seeing him start to break through the edges of the region’s insulating bubble.
Last year Raj released “Moxie Java,” a syrupy bar crawl with fellow Bay Area local Nef The Pharoah. “Moxie Java,” with its immediately striking bass burbles and smacking snares, was a career-shifting moment for the rapper. “I could kinda see the numbers on the computer, people were tweeting me or whatever, tagging me on Instagram,” recalled Raj. “But then I went to the show…and I remember that was the first time I heard a crowd of people singing the words. It was like ‘Oh fuck, this one is kind of sticking.’”
For all it’s effervescent swagger, “Moxie Java” still isn’t the best song on Father Figure. It probably isn’t even in the top five. That’s no slight against “Moxie Java,” that’s a qualifier for how high the standards are on the album. Father Figure is Raj’s best work yet, a soothing, soulful meditation on earned perspective and regional pride. Equally capable of boasting big game (“Shit n’ Floss”) as he is reflecting on what’s allowed him to reach the heights he currently occupies (“Ojw3”), Raj swerves calmly and conscientiously across 13 tracks of melodiously gripping instrumentals.
The most immediately arresting single is “Handheld GPS,” a slippery party-chiller where Raj flexes his capacity for imparting philosophical musings in snappy quotables. “Fuck a suggestion, use intuition/ When your heart speaks to you, you should listen,” Raj spits with clarity-fueled confidence. The song best captures the conversational ambition that he naturally demonstrates when speaking in person, in all of Raj’s romanticized optimism: “I don’t even know what I’m shooting for/ But I’m shooting anyway.”
“Handheld GPS” also touches on the isolating effects of technologically-crafted self-identities. In Raj’s words: “I look at social media like a gift and a curse. The gift is your able to touch so many people, and everybody is kind of at your fingertips. You can be direct-to-consumer. You can really touch people. But the downfall is it’s really easy to compare yourself to someone’s idealized life. Everybody looks like they’re doing good on social media, and that’s the trick. You fall into that, and you think ‘Damn, look at him doing this, doing that,’ and you’re sitting here feeling bad about yourself. That’s why I saw social media is disingenuous. It’s like you’re getting glimpses of the best aspects of peoples’ lives and you’re comparing your normal life to that.”
Another prominent theme Raj wrestles with on Father Figure is that implied by the album title. “To me, a father figure is someone who gives you the game and shows you how things are supposed to be done and someone you can look up to,” said Raj. In speaking about the importance of his own father: “One of the biggest lessons he taught me is that it’s better to always have your own. I got my own studio, my own business, my LLC, that’s why I built my own team. Everything is in-house, because when you have your own, people can’t take that from you.”
Not that they won’t try. For all of Raj’s impressions of the world, he’s well aware of the world’s impression of him, both as a person and as a physical entity. “