In the Algorithm Age, Rexx Life Raj Charts a Path Without Gimmicks

With 'Father Figure 3: Somewhere Out There,' Rexx Life Raj's soulful, sensitive approach lends itself to his most compelling album yet. (Nastia Voynovskaya/KQED)

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."

Rexx Life Raj in front of a mosaic at Willard Middle School, where he got his start in music in the early 2000s.
Rexx Life Raj in front of a mosaic at Willard Middle School, where he got his start in music in the early 2000s. (Nastia Voynovskaya/KQED)

"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.

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In a few days, Raj will head off on his first national headlining tour, with a San Francisco stop at the Independent on Nov. 20. "Whenever I talk to Ronnie, he's always like, 'Damn bro, we used to talk about this.' I think that's why even harder for him." 

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The idea of "beating the odds" is a cliche that follows successful black men, but as we drive down Ashby Avenue to Sacramento Street to Raj's childhood home, he tells me that he and his Berkeley High friends often reflect on how narrowly they escaped tragedy themselves. He mentions classmates who were never the same after popping the wrong pills when ecstasy was a staple of the hyphy movement, and others who were shot while minding their own business in their cars or at parties.

"It's weird, because it's for sure a survivor's guilt. But for me, at least, it gives me a sense of purpose," he says. Sharing the pep talk he often repeats to himself, he continues: "Like, 'Alright, you went through all these obstacles and you went through all this shit, so you have to be something. You had all the luck on your side, you had all the blessings on your side, you had all the opportunities on your side.'"


Now signed to the San Francisco distribution label Empire, which boasts a vast roster encompassing local artists like Rayana Jay and global superstars like Snoop Dogg, Raj is certainly making the most of the chances that've come his way. After years of building up his fan base through cult releases, he's finally seeing his music career reach a level beyond that of an independent hometown artist.

Raj has had studio sessions with super-producer Scott Storch, whose decades-spanning career includes hits for Beyoncé and Trippie Redd alike. On Father Figure 3, Kehlani makes an appearance on the charming, acoustic love song "Your Way," and platinum-selling rapper Russ assists on the bass-heavy, uptempo R&B track "Falling." Even with this greater access and bigger budget, Raj still enlisted some of the Bay Area's most talented local producers for Father Figure 3, including DTB, Wax Roof and Drew Banga, and made sure to bring them out on stage and thank them heartily at his packed listening party at Berkeley's Cornerstone.

Rexx Life Raj spent his formative years riding the 72 bus line from Berkeley to Richmond's Hilltop Mall.
Rexx Life Raj spent his formative years riding the 72 bus line from Berkeley to Richmond's Hilltop Mall. (Nastia Voynovskaya/KQED)

Even with numerous collaborators, Father Figure 3 has a cohesive feel that's all Raj, underscored by the warm, from-the-diaphragm vocal quality born from years of singing gospel in church with his mom. (Even when he's rapping, you can tell he can sing-sing.) He sketched the skeletal framework of many of the album's beats himself, and recorded the majority of his vocals alone—in hotels and AirBnBs—while on the road with Bas. "My whole studio is a laptop, an audio interface and a microphone," he says, adding that he fit his equipment into a single suitcase. "I can record literally anywhere, as long as the sound isn't that bad."

Raj's slow-food approach to his music stands in stark contrast to other up-and-coming artists' strategies for success in the streaming era, where it's easier than ever to blow up from a fluke viral hit—and harder than ever to make a lasting impact. While many attempt to game this system by adopting easily meme-able gimmicks, Raj doesn't brand himself as a conscious rapper, a street rapper, a party rapper or, really, any of the boxes typically seen in the mainstream.

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"Some people are good at creating characters and packaging this whole image for Instagram that's really marketable," he says. "My biggest fear is turning into one of those things and having to be that all the time. ... That's why I appreciate the TDEs and Dreamvilles, because those are the people who have made it to this pinnacle without the gimmicks."

That can certainly describe Raj's own approach. His lyrics reference the teachings of the Black Panthers and Nipsey Hussle, then jolt listeners with irreverent punchlines about sex and recreational drug use before swinging back to contemplative passages on his life's direction.

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On Father Figure 3, Raj's heartfelt lyrical gems open pathways to emotional intimacy between artist and listener—in the same way those late-night conversations in the burgundy Regal must have felt among best friends.

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