To say that Raj refuses to be boxed in isn't just a metaphor. Standing at 6'3" with broad shoulders, Raj doesn't look far off his football playing days on the offensive line for Boise State University at the turn of the decade, which should pay dividends as he's embarked on his first headlining tour. "The only real gauge of success in the music business is how many people pull up to your shows. Everything else can really be manipulated," he states like a quote he's probably heard once or twice from good friend, Russ.
Even with his intimidating frame, the 29-year-old is more of a soft spoken gentle giant, as he delivers shrewd, well-thought-out answers behind his oval glasses and puffy yellow North Face jacket during our conversation at the Billboard office on FF3 release day.
Check out the rest of our interview, which finds Raj speaking to his upbringing, Father Figure 3, his friendship with G-Eazy that dates back to high school, playing football at Boise State and more.
Billboard: How'd you get into music and who were some of your early inspirations?
Rexx Life Raj: I got into music at a very young age. Everyone on my mom's side does music. I come from a gospel family and my dad was always playing Bob Marley and a lot of reggae music. My parents having a delivery service is what really solidified it for me. I was always in the back of the car listening to oldies and 102.9 KBLX The Quiet Storm. Music was always around and rap was always cool when I understood what it was. To get into it you don't even need to have any talent, you can just rhyme dumb s--t together.
Neo-soul music became my favorite when I could begin to appreciate it. I was into Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, and Musiq Soulchild. [Kid Cudi's] Man on the Moon: End of Day is one of, if not my favorite album of all-time. It was one of the only albums I've heard and felt like I knew him. I felt like I knew Scott Mescudi. It was so true to himself and that's something I want to carry into my artistry. When you listen to me, I want you to go into my mind because every album is somebody's world.
With your father being affiliated with the Black Panthers, how did that shape your upbringing?
He was just very transparent with me from a young age about what it means to be black in this society, [as far as] how you'll be perceived in certain situations, and he was big on me knowing my history, from Malcolm X to Marcus Garvey and Huey Newton. It was about understanding the lineage of people who fought and died for us to be where we were.
Does it bother you that music with less substance than yours dominates the Billboard charts?
It used to, kind of. I found a lane of people who fucked with my music and my message. I might not be the biggest in the world, but I'm having an impact on certain people, and that's my metric of success. It's the people who tell me that I got them through depression, through their dad dying, or college.
Two, I don't trip off this shit because the longer I'm in this shit, the less I want to be famous. Fame seems hella weird and seems to be a lot. I talk to some of my more famous friends and the more I talk to them, the more deep down shit they have going on. They have so much pressure from society and the fans.
I think fame is a weird thing and I'm always kind of iffy on people who aspire to be famous. I think if fame is the byproduct of your talent, that’s one thing, but if you're out here trying to be famous, that might be a little mental illness. You could also run it up with social media followers. It's like why work a job when you could do stupid s--t on Instagram.
I see the more famous you get, the less freedom you have. You think you can do what you want, but the most famous people I know can't do s--t. They can't just go to a restaurant. I think I'm at this cool level of some people know me, but a majority don't so I can go to Olive Garden and get the pasta. Imagine you couldn't go to Denny's?
I feel like you touch on that during "Moonwalk" when you're observing the changes around you as you ascend in fame.
It is. I go through my DMs now and there's so many. I remember going through my DMs and I would know everybody. Now it's just so many people tagging me in s--t and people hitting me. There's a lot of appreciation as well, so I try to get back to them. I respond to certain things. I can't respond to everyone, there's a lot of people asking for s--t. I try to do my best when somebody's genuinely showing love.
Was there something you hoped that this project would accomplish that maybe the previous two installments didn't?
I don't have a metric for that kind of success. As long as my growth is steadily going up and it's continuing to touch people [that's what matters]. My big thing with this project is having a headlining tour. I've been doing music so long, and I've never had a headlining tour. That's a big deal and it means that I can travel.
How was working with Kehlani on "Your Way?"
It was really dope. Working with Kehlani has been one of the biggest blessings in my life because I've learned so much by being in the studio with her. I've learned how to sing better and even breathe when I sing. We started to communicate a lot more after our first record, and that's when I was going on tour with Bas. It was the longest [tour] I've ever done and I hit her because it was the most singing I'd be doing.
My voice was dying and I hit her to see what I could do to get through the tour. Everything she told me was true. She was like, "You need to drink a lot of water, sleep, no smoking, and no eating bad." Basically she said just to be a good human and take care of your body. She's introduced me to a lot of people in the industry.
The original acoustic record was a totally different song, but I flipped it into a new song when I was in Europe. I sent it to her and she was fucking with it. That record wasn't made together, but we got a lot more.
Where was the project recorded?
It started here, but a lot of my album I recorded in random Airbnbs and hotels around the country and in Europe. That's one of the reasons it's called Somewhere Out There, because I did it in all these different places.
What purpose are the voice memos supposed to serve? We hear from your mom, Nipsey Hussle and J. Cole.
I'm a big podcast and audio guy, period. I'll hear crazy ass quotes on Instagram or on a podcast, then my mom will call me and I'll record some of it and it can fit into what I'm talking about. To me, it's almost like an exclamation point on the song. I have Nipsey on the beginning of "Burgundy Regal."
What's the biggest thing you learned from Nipsey Hussle?
I think the biggest thing I got is that you can give back to the community, but you can also empower the community. Try to empower people and put them in positions to win, or teach people how to make money and be self-employed. Just giving them the game back so they could use it in their own lives. It's not just about giving them money. I think empowerment is the biggest thing I learned from Nipsey.
Did you put any of those plans into action yet?
We started Good & Proper in the Bay Area, where all of the proceeds are given to local organizations. I'm going to do some things where I go up there and explain everything that goes on behind the scenes. Maybe talk about audio engineering and show them different avenues of making money in the music business. There's more ways to make money than just being an artist. You can be a writer, booking agent, or manager. That's a really dope program.
Walk me through "Burgundy Regal." That's about your incarcerated and murdered friends Funk and Devin.
Their stories are intertwined for reasons I don't want to talk about. It's one of those things that are pure streams of consciousness that come to me when I write. I was influenced by the chords that played that day. Even though I don't know music theory, it brought me to a special place.
I look at Funk and know if he wasn't in jail right now, he'd be here with me. When I talk to him, he's proud, but I know he's sad because we used to talk about all this sh-t. That's what the song is about. After school I had a Burgundy Regal and we'd take it down to the Berkeley Marina and we would freestyle and kick raps, smoke, and talk about how we were going to be famous rappers in the future. He's working on the case, hopefully he gets out soon. I'm going to give him the Offset treatment when he gets out.
Have you done anything to invest in your mental health while dealing with fame of your own?
I want to start taking therapy. I was looking for a therapist before I came out here. I meditate everyday. I have to meditate and work out. I just started doing yoga. It's one of those things to maintain a solid grip on my happiness, I have to be proactive about it. My pops is sick and my mom is running a business and I'm not really there to help them.
A lot of my music is about watching my thought process and seeing how I'm taking to the world. I don't think people pay attention to the way they think. Before I started meditating, there was a point I'd get mad and upset. Meditation taught me that any emotion that comes up in life, I can see it for what it is and then I can choose whether I want to engage in that emotion.
Are there certain vices you've tried to cut out of your life?
Fast food. I just like food. It's so tempting because every area is known for their [own] s--t. Food is my temptation. I think I damn near overwork myself to the point where I sacrifice my friendships. I used to pop a lot of Adderall, but I slowed that down.
That had to be crazy going to high school with G-Eazy when you look back at it now.
It's the most wild s--t. When I was coming up with him, he was in a group. To see what he transformed into is insane. When I look at him, from a branding standpoint, he nailed it. It's been a blueprint for a lot of people I know. Plus him always being a solid, stand up guy, he's never acted too big or hollywood. He does things he doesn't have to do and that's a metric of his character. G is always reaching back.
How'd you balance playing football and doing music in college? Did you know that music was always your true passion?
Music has always been my passion, but I played football because I was good at it. I got the opportunity to get a scholarship and I wasn't going to turn that down. That would've been stupid. I was the guy with the studio set up in the dorm. Luckily, I knew what my passion was. That's why I don't trip, I was a backup that started three or four games. I never aspired to go to the NFL.
For 90 percent of the dudes on the team, football was everything. College athletes after college isn't a discussion we have a lot. There was a phase a lot of my friends went through where they were depressed. Football was your whole life. That's why you see a lot of guys go into coaching because they're trying to fill that void of football. When something is your whole life, it's your identity. When that's taken away, it's like, "Am I going to be a teacher or work a day job?"
In the past you've said your goal is to write, mix, master, and produce all of your music one day. How close are you to actually doing that?
That's down the road. I'm a real perfectionist, so that's why I take my music elsewhere. I'm the type of guy if I hear something and can't fix it, then I'm just not going to put it out. I've got songs I've mixed, but the quality isn't up to par.
Do you have any goals for next year?
I just want this tour to be as dope as possible. I know a lot of people have been waiting to see me tour, and I want to finish the year strong. I feel like we kind of nailed this year. We got a couple videos coming out as well. The plan is to keep growing and pushing myself next year.