Rexx Life Raj spent the last year headlining shows in London, eating fromage in Paris and touring the United States with Dreamville rapper Bas. A long way from his humble beginnings working at his parents' package delivery business in Vallejo, the Berkeley-raised artist seems, by all counts, to be living the musician's dream.
And yet, on his new album Father Figure 3: Somewhere Out There, there's a sense of survivor's guilt. On the track "Burgundy Regal," Raj meditates on two of his childhood best friends, Devin and Ronnie. Over a warm guitar loop with a vintage feel, Raj reminisces about the trio taking the 72 bus line after school from Berkeley to Richmond's Hilltop Mall. Later, once old enough to drive, they would cruise around in Raj's Buick, spending hours videotaping each other freestyling, dancing and goofing around at the Berkeley Marina.
Raj went on to play Division 1 football at Boise State University. But his friends' lives took completely different paths. Tragically, Devin was killed during Raj's freshman year. ("Just being at the wrong place at the wrong time," Raj says with a sigh.) Meanwhile, Ronnie is currently incarcerated at a facility near Fresno. In a tender falsetto on the track's chorus, Raj reflects with gratitude on how these friends helped him visualize his dreams of a music career. "Head to the sky I push / Pushin' for the ones who ain't had a chance," he sings. "Now I open my eyes and it looks / Just like the convos that we used to have."
"One of the main things I remember about Devin is that he was older and wiser than his age," says Raj, as he leads me on a walk around Willard Middle School, where he met Devin in 6th grade, at the end of Berkeley's Telegraph Avenue strip. At another friend's house on the edge of the soccer field, where preteens run around for P.E. when we walk by, is where he recorded his first mixtape—an actual cassette—using a karaoke machine and a keyboard.
We then hop in the car to visit Raj's childhood home in West Berkeley, driving away from Telegraph's colorful hippie shops and record stores to a concrete landscape dotted with liquor stores and construction sites. "If [Ronnie] was out, he'd be here with me doing everything," Raj says.