Rexx Life Raj’s elegant cadences and eagle-eyed observations about life in the Bay Area and society at large have helped him build a devout fanbase. As the 29-year-old rapper’s audience has grown, he’s been able to perform and travel around the world. Now, his travels are fueling the music more than ever. His latest project, Father Figure 3: Somewhere Out There, released November 6, 2019, is likely his broadest and most accessible in terms of soundscapes and perspectives.
On the gospel-tinged “Flowers,” travel is the reward for hard work and worthwhile use of his newfound rap money. While on the probing “War,” Raj’s international journeys have informed and broadened his sociopolitical perspective.
Not only is the material influenced by different locales, but Raj recorded many of the tracks in various cities around the U.S. and Europe. Raj has long preached the importance of an artist learning to record themselves, and he put that skill to good use on the third entry of his Father Figure series, which began in 2016.
“It’s a big deal, not only because you can travel and do it anywhere, but because you’ll save money and have creative freedom,” Raj says. “Being able to travel with a studio is crazy, you can get inspired anywhere and just record.”
Though Father Figure 3 has influences from around the world, its roots are still firmly planted in Raj’s hometown of Berkeley, California. The stirring “Burgundy Regal” begins with an excerpt from the late Nipsey Hussle before morphing into both a tribute to a fallen friend named Devin, who was killed while Raj was at college in Boise, and a testament to how their dreams as kids fuel the rising rapper now.
Father Figure 3 features more high-profile guests than Raj’s previous work, and all of them help expand his sonic universe. Kehlani adds both airy harmonies and a grounding sensibility on the swooning acoustic ballad “Your Way,” while Kenny Beats provides his requisite gritty percussion on “Moonwalk.”
Amid his first headlining tour, we caught up with Raj to discuss his new album, questioning religion, and what success looks like to the Bay Area rapper. This interview has been lightly edited for content and clarity.
DJBooth: You have a sizeable body of work for an artist on their first headlining tour. How do you go about building a setlist?
Rexx Life Raj: I look at, What are my most popular songs? But, I also want to do the songs that mean a lot to me. That’s why “Burgundy Regal” was so important to do. That’s why I’ve added songs like “The Long Way,” even though that’s not my biggest song. It’s a song for me; it means something to me. It’s about balancing the show in terms of how it flows and the ups-and-downs of all the songs… I’ve never been on my own headlining tour, so I know a lot of people have been waiting on it and I want to do all the songs they want to hear.
You tweeted that you weren’t sure you could perform “Burgundy Regal.” What changed your mind?
I wasn’t going to do it; then I got a random tweet from this fan who liked the song and said something to the point of, “We all have a Devin in our lives, and you’re speaking for more than just yourself.” That’s what gave me the motivation to perform it. I wanted to perform it anyway, but that did it for me.
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How did the song “Flowers” come about, and what made you want to include your mom singing on it?
I was in the studio with Avadon, Julia Lewis, and Blake Straus, who played the guitar. Blake came up with the riff, and they started making the drums, so I wrote the first verse and the hook. I was like, “Damn, I wish I could have my mom on the song.” If we were in the Bay, I would have had her pull up and do a little something. But, since I was in LA, I still wanted to incorporate her into the song, so I called her and had her sing, and it made it onto the project.
You address religion in your music pretty regularly, but it’s often with an existential edge and a sense of curiosity. Why is that important to you to explore?
I’m not sure. It’s crazy because I don’t think too much about it when I’m writing it, it just comes out. That’s just how I feel, coming from a real church background. Everything was so church-oriented, but then, growing up and finding my way, I [started] to question everything. You should question things. It comes out in my music because my music is honest, and it’s about what I’m going through in my head. Anytime I think about it; it’s in that way. If you believe in it, you have to question it. If you believe in this Almighty God, then why is all this crazy shit going on?
You crafted most of the album while you were traveling. How important is it to record on the road?
I’ve been telling people, “You should learn how to record yourself.” It’s a big deal, not only because you can travel and do it anywhere, but because you’ll save money and have creative freedom. Being able to travel with a studio is crazy, you can get inspired anywhere and record. There were times before where I would be traveling and want to record, but I couldn’t because I didn’t have a studio or didn’t want to pay the money for it. So just being able to be inspired in different places at any given time is a powerful thing. A lot of songs came out of that.
You value using money smartly and talk about that in your material. What does the money you’ve made through music mean to you?
Just growing the business I’ve started and being able to put people in better positions. My goal is to get a house next year, that’s what I’m working towards with my money. I’m trying to buy something that’s gonna last me a long time. The point of having money is to flip it and get more money so you can feel free, eventually.
How do you define musical success for yourself at this stage of your career?
It’s just growth. I don’t think it’s a number or a tangible thing. It’s seeing that if I do a tour next year, it’s bigger than this tour. If I drop songs next year, they’re streaming higher than these songs. But mainly, [it’s] being able to create what I want and not being pigeonholed into a certain sound or having some label or investor telling me I need to do whoop de whoop. I never want it to become a job. That’s one thing I’ve seen from artists who have been in the game for a long time, and it’s another reason I think managing your money is important.
I’ve seen a lot of older artists who have been in the game, but they didn’t manage their money correctly, and now music is a job. They create because they have to make money… So now you’re in this position where you’ve gotta do shit and what used to be fun and bring you joy is a pain because it’s work now.
Looking back on Father Figure 3 six months from now, what do you want to see that’ll make you feel the album had the impact you wanted?
I already see it with people telling me it’s touching them in certain ways or helping them through their lives. I see it at shows; people know the lyrics to “The Fog” and “Burgundy Regal.” They know the songs, so I know it’s affecting the people. I think that’s good enough.