Each month, The Ringer’s Logan Murdock will profile up-and-coming artists from across the music landscape. And each month, he’ll also put you on notice about the future of that landscape. Tap in.
Berkeley rapper Rexx Life Raj has lived much of his life with inner conflict. As a teenager, he felt it when he took a football scholarship from a school in Idaho, leaving behind friends who didn’t have the same opportunities. Years later, he felt the same when he started his music career. Now, at age 30, after receiving cosigns from Kehlani and G-Eazy, doing multiple tours overseas, and making more money than he’s ever made, Raj is still on a quest to overcome the guilt he feels along his musical rise.
“It’s a weird feeling, but it’s a feeling I’ve had for a long time,” he says. “When I got out, same thing, when I was doing good in music, niggas weren’t doing well.”
Raj’s latest project, California Poppy 2, out Friday, is of his current place in life. Rex, born Faraji Wright, is on the cusp of his break, while battling his disposition. The eight-song EP, which includes features from British rapper Kojey Radical and Juvenile, is an eclectic hybrid of rap and R&B that isn’t usually marketed out of the hyphy-dominated Bay Area. Different experiences are littered throughout the project. He raps about how the ascent isn’t always peaches and cream. How even though he has a Tesla, money can’t buy his way out of guilt. On “Canvas,” he speaks on the inner conflict that comes with success: “Still feel that weight on me,” he sings. “Survivor’s guilt, be havin’ this way with me / Wish I had duplicates to stay with me / So I can lend a helpin’ hand to everyone who need it.”
But what makes this project special is Raj’s ability to bring anyone into his broad orbit. No better example than “Freak,” a homage to Adina Howard’s “Freak Like Me,” featuring Juvenile. Taken at face value, the collab seems like a weird pairing: Raj, an elegant crooner, known for his charm and smooth singing pattern, paired with Juvi, a legendary gangster rapper, known more for his hard lyrics than his seductive prowess. But the partnership works, as Juve seamlessly fits in with Raj’s distinctive sound.
Raj’s life has been a balancing act of successful interests. As a child, he followed his older cousins into the pulpit, playing the drums for the Zion Hill Missionary Baptist Church band, Soon after, he bought a Casio and began making beats. It made sense for him—he comes from a family of singers. His mother sang in the group the Marshall Quartet, alongside his aunt, uncle, and grandmother. But he grew faster than most of his peers, and by age 17, he had a 6-foot-3, 270-pound frame perfectly suited for football. As an adolescent, he excelled on the gridiron, becoming a decorated offensive lineman at Berkeley High School.
“He ended up being one of my best players,” Alonzo Carter, Raj’s high school coach, says. “I was proud of him, man. One of the guys that bought into my philosophy.”
But he was living a double life. At Berkeley, he’d drive from campus to the Marina and bust rhymes in the car after practice. But college coaches had other ideas, and Boise State soon offered a full-ride scholarship, which Raj took, despite his true passion.
“My main focus was always music,” Raj says. “I just happened to be good at football. Even though it wasn’t my passion, I had to go get that scholarship because it was big for my parents to get a degree. When I got to Boise, it was pure football.”
Well, not quite, according to Carter, who would get updates from Idaho about his former pupil’s extracurricular activities.
“He went to Boise,” Carter recalled. “And it was funny, because after him I remember my former player Thomas Bird bragging off Faraji as a rapper when he was at Boise. And I’m saying, ‘Faraji?’”
On the gridiron, Wright had an unimpressive career, though he was on the 2010 Fiesta Bowl–winning squad before he earned his degree. But after school, he was back in the Bay Area, working for his parents’ courier delivery company. Music was still the goal, and he self-released Hidden Clouds and Portraits in 2014. A year later, he dropped The Escape and Dreamland: Telegraph Avenue, which caught the attention of the independent label Empire, where he signed shortly after. Soon after, singer Kehlani and rapper G-Eazy, who met Raj in middle school, inquired about features. Along the way, his personal life took another tone: As he began to rise above his peers, he began to feel guilty they couldn’t come along.
The standout track, “Tesla in a Pandemic,” pays homage to the Model Y he purchased earlier this year, a symbol of his ascent. But it underscores a familiar feeling Raj has felt throughout his rise. Sure, he’s reaching personal success, but why can’t his peers reach it with him? On the song, he raps: “Meditate daily or else I get to tripping / Because rapping is easy but staying humble isn’t / Overthinking nights when I twist and flip in the bed / And my Twitter feed turns into little voices in my head / Like why is it so hard to see the positive instead?”
“I felt that way when I was in Idaho, having the chance to go to college,” he says. “I got my degree and played football and shit, and during that time, niggas died, niggas got killed, went to jail, all kinds of shit.”
The track was inspired by Raj’s friend Ronnie, incarcerated for an undisclosed crime since the rapper’s college days. On a call, Raj told his friend he’d put in a preorder for the Model Y. Ronnie responded, according to Raj, that he should name his next project “Tesla in a Pandemic.” Instead, Raj made it a song, juxtaposing getting a luxury car in a pandemic alongside his feelings of guilt.
The rest of the EP mirrors the same theme, displaying the life space Raj finds himself in at the moment: still on the same trajectory, while simultaneously trying to bring everyone up with him.
The South Central crooner is primed to be L.A.’s next superstar. Over the past 18 months, he’s released a collaborative project with Bino Rideaux, lent vocals to Mozzy’s latest EP, and released his own debut project, No Love Lost, this September. Mixing smooth vocals and vivid storytelling, Blxst provides a unique look at the current state of Los Angeles. More impressive is the project’s rollout, which includes a four-part short film series. In it Blxst navigates trust issues between his best friend and significant other, while trying to avoid the streets’ allure. The L.A. native has everything you’d want from a West Coast artist: the look, voice, and laid-back demeanor. Think Ty Dolla $ign’s charisma with Kendrick’s storytelling abilities. With a deluxe version of No Love Lost expected in December and a sequel project with Bino to soon follow, Blxst may be on the brink of a special year in 2021.
Jim’s labelmate AllBlack was in last month’s column, giving a small introduction to the Oakland rapper. If Black is the star of their label, Play Runners Association, Jim is its muscle. Over the last couple of years, he’s garnered some buzz, releasing his debut project No Pressure in early 2019. Since then, he teamed up with Black on the joint album 22nd Ways, was featured alongside Black and T-Pain on G-Eazy’s “Get a Check” last August, and is prepping for his sophomore project. It’s expected the first quarter of 2021, headlined by his latest single, “Mary Poppins,” which was released earlier this month. But his biggest look thus far came outside of the booth, as a model in Drake’s “October’s Very Own” fall/winter collection. Jim’s charisma and versatility could make him a star of the future.
In a climate where hip-hop seems to be changing every few months, Lyric Jones is taking the genre back to a time we once knew. Her latest album, Closer Than They Appear, is a lyrical force, with features from Vic Mensa and Little Brother plus production from Phonte. Jones’s music is every bit of hip-hop’s glory age of the ’90s. On “Face to Face,” Jones expresses the rage she feels over the police killing of Breonna Taylor last spring: “My temperature change / My people sick of the statistics / Our temper in flames. We fighting hand to hand. For all the Sandra Blands, Breonna Taylors, real demands / Rage is all they understand.” She’ll rap circles around your favorite rappers and give you a poignant message before the song concludes.
The Atlanta rapper put out the deluxe version of his debut project, Better, late last month, and the 20-song album is a refreshing illustration of self-reflection. “Déjà Vu,” the album’s standout track featuring Guapdad 4000, tells the story of a love story marred by bad timing, a fact Hitchcock can’t wrap his head around. “Past life, that’s where I met you,” he raps, “Buried in my mind, that’s where I kept you / Fast life, fast life, tryna catch you.” Hitchcock’s vocals and subject matter on the track bring you back to the moment right before you realized love wasn’t a simple emotion, and that stars have to align for it to work. But he also has enough self-awareness to see it for himself. Hitchcock’s rise has been seen by some of hip-hop’s elite, including J-Cole, who included the 27-year-old in his Dreamville recording sessions for the collaboration album Revenge of the Dreamers III. Atlanta has long been known for its diverse array of talent, and Hitchcock could be in the next wave of rappers who fit that bill.