Bebe Rexha’s 2018 debut album was titled Expectations; three years later, she admits that her personal expectations have changed since its release. “When it comes to other people, when it comes to myself, everybody’s going through something that you don’t know about,” Rexha tells Billboard. “Everybody’s just trying their best. After a pandemic, people are just trying to get back on track and find their stepping. What I try to teach myself is to be compassionate with myself and the people around me.”
That level of understanding defines Rexha’s sophomore album, Better Mistakes, out this Friday (May 7) on Warner Records. The veteran singer-songwriter — a best new artist Grammy nominee who has led Billboard Hot 100 hits like “I’m a Mess” and “I Got You,” as well as co-starred on smashes like “Meant to Be” with Florida Georgia Line and “Me, Myself & I” with G-Eazy — remains one of the steadiest presences in pop, yet her latest full-length unpacks her various insecurities, and ultimately overpowers those flaws with a stronger sense of self.
The result is an unflinching self-assessment that hopscotches across pop, hip-hop, alternative rock and dance music, and pulls in a few of Rexha’s famous friends, from Lil Uzi Vert on “Die for a Man” to Travis Barker on “Break My Heart Myself” to Doja Cat on lead single “Baby, I’m Jealous.” A version of Better Mistakes was originally finished prior to the pandemic and resulting shutdown; in the interim, Rexha changed managers, signing to Wassim “Sal” Slaiby’s Sal & Co. last fall, where she joins artists like The Weeknd and Doja Cat.
During a Zoom chat a few days before the release of Better Mistakes, Rexha discussed what the project represents to her personally and professionally, battling imposter syndrome, and why she wants to dabble in metal music.
You had spoken about the focus of your second album in early 2020, and then the pandemic shutdown happened. How did the album change over the past year?
It’s funny, because I had this super-focused album that was all in the “Empty,” “Death Row,” “Break My Heart Myself” world, and “My Dear Love” was still in there to go a little more hip-hop. But then sitting on the album was driving me crazy, listening to all these sad songs. When you sit on an album for two years, two-and-a-half years, you’re gonna want to change it. So I had to fight myself not to change a lot — but I threw “Sacrifice” in there, and “Amore.” I threw in different genres, and that’s what I wanted.
I kind of got bored sitting on the album. And I could write over Zoom, but it wasn’t the same — I like being in the room with other collaborators. It’s not fun on the computer because you don’t feel their energy. One person is playing guitar at the same time as another person, and you’re singing, and it’s just a nightmare. I felt a little stuck, like I couldn’t even write. So we did change the album somewhat throughout, and at some point I had to say, “I have to stop, or I’m going to have 80 thousand genres on this album.” I really love Twenty One Pilots and No Doubt, and I wanted to take guitar-based stuff and mix it with hip-hop. Songs like “Sacrifice” came along the way, and “Amore.”
You take more songwriting risks on Better Mistakes — a song like “Death Row,” or the chorus to “Better Mistakes.” You flip Dean Martin’s “That’s Amore,” and then you add Rick Ross to it. There’s a sense of freedom.
What I tend to do is overthink a lot, and then I get to a point where I go “Aw, f–k it,” and then just do whatever the hell I want. I never want to do anything more than once. I like to do things that are a little different, that f–k s–t up a little bit. It’s more exciting to me, it keeps me on my toes, trying different things musically.
If I could, I would have a metal song on the album, but everybody was very against that. It’s hard, because a lot of time you’ll work with other people in the industry, and people are very safe. It’s not only about the artist, but about the people that are surrounding the artist and working with the artist. I’ll say, “I want to do a metal-esque song and put a pop song over it” — because I love guitars. When I listen to Nirvana, when I listen to Red Hot Chili Peppers, those songs do something to me, where the darker songs make me feel good. I wanted it to be guitar-based, but a lot of times when I try new things, people get really scared and they go do the safest thing. It’s really annoying.
On the one hand, I feel the music industry is much more open to blurring genres in the streaming age. But on the other hand, I think it’s just as easy for an artist to get pigeonholed, where a “pop artist” will forever be seen as a “pop artist.”
I get it. I think I just automatically make more pop-leaning stuff. If I say something like, “Oh, I want to do a metal-type vibe,” I’m going to write a pop song to it, you feel me? But to me, the way that I think of it is doing something to shake it up a bit, so it doesn’t feel so obvious. A pop song to me is just a really catchy song, no matter what the genre is — dance, hip-hop, country. If it’s a song that most people like, it’s a popular song. So I’m going to write something that’s more pop-based anyway, but when I collaborate with people I just try different things, and it does get annoying sometimes when I feel like I can’t make them budge.
What was your writing process like over the past year? You said you felt stuck. Did you have to sit down somewhere and force yourself to figure out these songs?
I’ve been writing some stuff — like, “Die For a Man,” I wrote that second verse in my living room. But there was no major songwriting happening. There were verses that needed to be finished, or things that needed to be mixed. But I can’t do the whole Zoom thing, it just doesn’t work for me. So it was harder. I had to finish the strings on “Mama” on Zoom, and record “Die For a Man” on Zoom. I had to re-learn how to mix myself, how to get my inputs back on and get my mic working. I had a little set-up in my kitchen.
You’ve been writing songs since you were a teenager. Since then, the way we consume music has shifted pretty dramatically. Trevor Daniel, who appears on the album track “My Dear Love,” scored a huge hit based off a TikTok snippet. Has that shift impacted your writing process at all?
I read an article on Megan Thee Stallion and how they were trying to pick her single, and then “Savage” was the one that popped off [on TikTok]. I kind of wrote this album pre-TikTok. So if something pops off on there, great, but I didn’t write my album for TikTok at all. I just want to write my songs. I don’t think I can write for a platform, even though I’m a big fan of TikTok and will go on there for hours and laugh my brains off. It’s hilarious.
I would love for something to pop off there, so if it’s meant to happen and kids like it, whatever the hell. I feel like it’d be really boring to write for an app — but people write for the radio all the time, so I guess it’s the same s–t. It’s crazy how it’s changed.
You’ve described your 2018 song “I’m a Mess” as a little bit of a ‘eureka’ moment for you, in terms of the feel and focus of this album. What was it about that song that unlocked the blueprint for Better Mistakes?
The honesty. I wrote that song in a crazy, hectic, manic place. I liked that it made me feel uncomfortable. The way that I was feeling was not healthy, but I’ve learned how to harness when I feel that way, when something’s really bothering me, and put it into a song. Also just the sound of it — the closest to it [on the new album] is probably “Break My Heart Myself,” but I love the sound of that song, and I’d love to do even more with it. I feel like we touched on it on here, but I also feel like we could go deeper.
You hear moments on this album where you put yourself in those uncomfortable positions again — a song like “Sabotage,” for instance, about addressing self-destruction head-on. The album functions as a type of critical self-examination.
That’s actually really interesting. I definitely feel like I’ve learned a lot about myself, and that I’m in a much happier place than I’ve ever been in. And calmer — even though calmer for me is still crazy for most people. But it has been a self-examination process, especially during quarantine.
During the process of this album, I’ve gotten to know myself really well, and the person that I am. And I’ve learned to accept that person, to accept her, flaws and all. I think that’s the number one thing in life — the acceptance within yourself, your failures, the good parts and the bad parts. For the longest time I had all these successful songs, I had all of these blessed moments, but I just never felt good enough. And that is not a nice feeling.
Was there something specific that was making you feel this way? Something more you wanted to achieve?
You always want more success, more hits, more fans, just to be the biggest that you can be. I feel like I would love to have won a Grammy, especially for “Meant to Be.” That was always a life dream of mine, and after that I was disappointed — like, “F–k, if anything could win me a Grammy, it was ‘Meant To Be.’”
I also just felt like, whenever I was at awards shows, I just felt like I don’t belong — because I was never at that A-level of superstardom, the big boys’ club. I always felt like I had just made the cut, you know? Because of my songwriting, because I had the power of the pen and was able to write these songs. I just felt a little bit — actually, a lot — out of place, and I wish that I had just accepted myself and been like, “I am here. I’m here for a reason, and I’m f–king doing my thing.”
You’ve been in the industry for over a decade at this point. What about it has gotten easier for you?
Well, I’ve got a new team around me, so we’re figuring each other out. But I still think it’s a lot of work. I know how things work better, I know what I like and what I don’t. For me it’s about surrounding myself with people that can enjoy the journey with me, whether it’s at a photo shoot or an interview, or in the studio. I love being in the studio, and I love being onstage. The working parts, sometimes they’re fun and sometimes they’re not, but that’s part of the package. The days can be so packed that you have to make sure you’re around people that you enjoy the process with.
In your recent discussion with Alicia Keys for Interview, you talked about being a businesswoman, reading your contracts, having more control in your career. Do you think there’s generally a greater sense of understanding of creators’ rights now than before?
I wish I would have known what I know now when I first started. I can’t get into it, but I wish I would have known. I think people are finally standing up for themselves, people are feeling empowered, and because of social media, artists and songwriters are able to support each other. I really like that, and I wish I would have had that earlier on. But I’m glad that changes are being made for the better, especially for the new wave of artists and songwriters coming in.
Between recording solo albums, writing for others, touring, collaborating and non-music work, what do you expect to focus on in the coming months and years?
I want to just keep writing, and tour. That’s it. I miss being in the studio for months, and I also miss touring for months. I love traveling, I love going to different countries, meeting the fans, being onstage. I feel like when the world opens up, we’re about to go buck wild. I know I am. Nobody’s stopping me!