Artists are constantly fighting the internal battle between carrying out their creative vision and sacrificing integrity for commercial success. Bas and Rexx Life Raj are a pair of respected rhymers who have dipped their toes into hip-hop’s mainstream, but have been reluctant to fully immerse themselves into that world.
Bas struggled with the aforementioned mental battle in February when he tweeted about having an 11-track album authentic to himself and the world he wanted to create with his next body of work — but was grappling with the idea of releasing another more palatable version to the mainstream, one that boasted A-list features and a streaming-friendly 17-song tracklist.
“There’s certain algorithms that are driving people to certain songs and playlists, that are kind of replacing radio as far as how you’re working your singles,” he admits. “Sometimes you feel the pressure of sometimes having to check those boxes.”
Meanwhile, Raj, an East Bay native, tragically lost both of his parents within three months of each other in the spring of 2021. He didn’t record much of any music at all while caring for them during their final months — until he let out all of that pent-up emotion by recording about 40 songs in a five-night span, shortly after they passed away.
The final product served as a cathartic release for Rexx Life Raj, who delivered his The Blue Hour album in July. “This album was more so for me than anyone else,” he tells Billboard of the album’s ultimate goals. “I’m happy it’s gonna help people, but I can’t imagine my psyche and mindset if I didn’t have music as a release. I need it in my life and I don’t know what I would do without it.”
Raj and the Dreamville spitter linked up when the former college football player opened for Bas on his Milky Way Tour in 2018, and they’ve collaborated on tracks in the past. Billboard caught up with both creatives together for a refreshing conversation digging deeper into the experience of being an artist in the streaming era.
Billboard: Did you guys have a “welcome to the music business” moment early on in your careers?
Bas: I came up with J. Cole, so I got to see and learn a lot from his perspective, his mistakes, and successes. Around when Cole was working on Born Sinner, he had me come out to L.A. around 2012 or 2013. We’re in sessions with No I.D. and he’s telling us the most epic No I.D. stories every day. That was my first time in L.A. on some musician s–t.
Cole had to go do a gig for Disney in Florida, and they left me in the crib and I threw a big ass party. They called me hot, “You throwing a party? Why everyone hitting me about going to a Cole house party?” I’m like, “Y’all n—as should not have left me in here.” It was an introduction for me, because L.A. is such a creative campus. It was a “who’s who” running into artists. Now you’re kinda jaded, but back then you’re like, “That’s so-and-so!“
Was there anyone specific you remember running into?
Bas: Cole and them came back and they were like, “We gotta throw another party, since you kinda lit up in our absence.” The next week, we threw a party and Frank Ocean came, and I was kinda fanning out. It might have still been on some Nostalgia, Ultra s–t. I just remember dude was regular, quiet and humble. I was like, “Oh s–t, that’s Frank Ocean.”
Rexx Life Raj: For me, I think it’s more just learning the business of being an independent artist. You just learn as you go. At one point, I was just mixing and mastering my own stuff. Editing my own videos and doing all that — and you kinda realize it’s all these key components to it, and at some point you gotta outsource it. It becomes a business. You definitely have to delegate. Signing to EMPIRE, learning from Nima [Etminan, COO] and Ghazi [Shami, CEO/Founder] in the building on how to move or from other artists that came through.
When you independent, it’s so many ways to move. So it’s really learning, “This works for him” — and it’s all about reverse-engineering s–t. I’ll be watching dude’s campaigns, and you see he dropped it like this, with this many singles, and you kinda figure out what works for you. Coming to L.A. is a whole different mindset. What I really learned was in writing sessions – it made me realize how much talent is behind-the-scenes.
In The Bay, n—as just write, produce and all that for themselves. You come out here, there’s eight geniuses in a room. Five of them can sing, three play the guitar and four are on the keys. It’s pure aliens out here. You get to see how these big records are made — it’s not a coincidence. You got eight of the best producers, and that’s not even including their management team. I used to think they just have a manager, but n—as be having three managers, A&R’s and all kinda s–t. You see how deep the game gets in L.A.
That’s good to lead into my next topic, of you guys having that internal battle of not wanting to sacrifice artistic integrity for commercial success. Bas, you tweeted in February about the debate of having an album made true to yourself, while the 17-track version was more algorithm-friendly and had big features.
Bas: Streaming changed music consumption so drastically, for better and for worse. In a way, it’s easier to never get heard — but there are more artists than ever that have the opportunity to share their music.
Sometimes it’s healthy to not fit in. It’s good if the record doesn’t have a home in the current landscape. When it comes to making albums, that’s kinda something I want to stay true to. I know Rexx feels the same with The Blue Hour, and the emotions he was conveying on there. That wasn’t necessarily built for the algorithm commercial audience, but it’s built for humans to connect to and feel something. I feel like those are the ones that made me fall in love with artists as people and not just a song. It’s gonna make me buy the ticket to come and hear you for an hour and not the big single. It’s this album means so much to me so I’m gonna come hear it in its entirety.
When you’re crafting those kind of albums, you usually have to sacrifice and trim some fat. They might be some big songs that could perform well for you in the future. With streaming, you need a lot less to release a record. I feel you build a world for the audience with every project. When they wanna feel that vibe or on a road trip — I feel like road trips are quintessential to the album process. You know those albums you wanna play all the way through on a road trip. It’s all about what your intention is, but that dilemma is ever-present.
I have an insecurity the latter may be better for my career. But the former is a truer showcase of my artistry. Everyday I’m torn between the two. Thoughts ?
— Bas (@Bas) February 25, 2022
Raj, was creating The Blue Hour therapeutic for you? And could you speak to that internal battle that Bas just hit on?
Rexx Life Raj: I think everything Bas said was hella real. One of the biggest things he said that resonated with me was artists being intentional with it. I think artists have to be real with themselves as far as what they want out of music. I think in n—as heads they just want to be the biggest artist. What does that mean? Are you willing to sacrifice parts of yourself to do that? For me, I’m always torn, because I understand bodies of work — that’s what really resonates with me. When I go back, I’m always listening to 808s & Heartbreak and The Man on the Moon.
At the same time, it’s like a game that you play. I feel like Bas is really good at navigating both worlds. He’s a hell of a rapper, and really good at putting his emotions into rap — and at the same time he can drop “The Jackie” like, “N—as stop playing with me.” When you’re able to do that, to me, it’s only bringing people back to the other s–t. You have this potential commercial record, you don’t want to play yourself. Like, “I wanna give y’all this.” This might reach more people than my personal album might ever reach — but at the same time, it’s gonna bring people into my world to see what’s really going on.
It’s a balance that you play. But artists have to know what success is for them. It’s different for everybody. In my mind, success was putting out The Blue Hour and having it help heal people through grief. I didn’t care what the numbers said because when I was going through grief, that’s all that mattered to me. When I put it out and I saw how deeply it resonated with people through conversations, in my heart, I already won. If it never streamed another day, I know what it did for somebody in their car alone or in their bedroom.
Some n—as just want to be on and hella famous and there’s a route for that too. I think the longevity comes from these types of bodies of work where you put your heart and soul into it. It might not be the biggest s–t, but you’ll have a sustained career in all facets.
Bas, were you happy with “The Jackie” as a mainstream type of record for you?
Bas: I’m learning about myself that I can play in both these worlds. That kinda goes back to that thought I had with which way to go with the album. Initially, I had “The Jackie” and “Admire Her” with Gunna slated for my album — but sonically, they just did something I didn’t really like to the world I was crafting for the album.
In a way, your landing page on Apple or Spotify — I’m starting to look at it as one big-ass album. People are gonna come there and find your most-streamed songs, and all your different projects laid out. If that’s the case, why not express what I want to express with as much intention as possible? And I know I could always come out and drop a song like “The Jackie.” Next year, I might feel like making a whole album like that.
If I have a vision that I really want to convey, I want to stay true to it, and know it’s never the end of the world. You could come back and drop something else if you don’t like the reception. Maybe the fans give you some feedback and you gotta listen to them sometimes. At the end of the day, if you have a vision, try to see it through as faithfully as possible.
Rexx Life Raj: How did your fans react when you dropped “The Jackie?” What was the reception?
Bas: S–t, good, unless they lying to me. They’re my better performance records. When I do festivals, it’s a completely different set than my own shows to my fans. I realize those songs are ever-more important when I’m playing a festival, because they’re just easy to digest for the average person who maybe isn’t a Bas fan. They’re gonna leave that set like, “B—h stop playing with me. Remember when we were singing that song? Let’s go look it up.” Those songs are still very important. There’s a reason those algorithms work that way. People are taught to hear certain ear candy. That’s just part of mainstream music now.
Our more artistically fulfilling music might not check those boxes, because we work in music all day — so naturally, if you’re a creative, you’re gonna want to do something different and those things are gonna mean more to us. By the same token, we’re still in the music business and that business is dictated by connecting with a wide variety of people. There’s always those other fans on the fringe, or festivalgoers who will have me thinking about performance records. Like, “What song on this project can I really perform?”
this is sound advice https://t.co/KGHDmvTWI5
— Bas (@Bas) August 13, 2022
Raj, how about creating out of loss or times of trauma? Dark times can make for the best art. Speak to music being an outlet for you to create The Blue Hour in that way.
Rexx Life Raj: It’s a damn near journal for me. When my parents were both sick, I wasn’t doing too much music, because I was taking care of them. What I would do is write hella notes and emotions, because I knew some fire music would come out of it. It’s a release for me. That’s why I know music is spiritual, because I could tell my story to someone and it resonates so deeply with them. It moves them to heal or process things better.
I kinda wanted to take a break. I didn’t even want to hop right into my album after my mom died. But for me, I wanted to get all of those feelings out as soon as possible because it wouldn’t be the same a year or two later. You’re not as raw and not as real so that’s why I really leaned in. Within a month after my month died, at the EMPIRE sessions, we did 40 songs in five days. We got so much music made. I didn’t make music for a year taking care of my parents.
It’s a blessing that I’m in this realm of creativity where I could put my real thoughts into the world and make money off it and travel and live. It goes back to defining what success is for you. One of the early markers for success for me was just not working a job. I just don’t wanna work. If I gotta rap and I only make a thousand dollars a month and that pays the rent — California $4,000 a month — then that’s success in my purest element. If I can live off it, that’s a win to me.
For you, Bas, I know you said the first time you picked up a pen was to the “Breathe In, Breathe Out” beat after someone was shooting at you and the first verse J. Cole heard from you was a song you wrote after your cousin died in a car accident.
That’s a good point, man. I think these are moments that have a huge impact on us and there are crossroads in life. When I started rapping, I was doing all the wrong things in New York. I was completely not living up to any of my potential as a human being. I was living like an idiot. You have real sobering moments like that. My homie got shot and some n—a shot at us. All that s–t is a long time ago — and it’s a blessing things could’ve been a lot worse than they were, but you gotta treat those moments as wake-up calls. Well, somebody is sending me a sign that my life is off path — and how do I get back on path? I was luckily enough to have a great support system help me find my creative side. It was something I didn’t even know I had.
As far as my cousin passing, that record is from my very first mixtape. I didn’t even know Cole heard it. IB [Ibrahim Hamad, Dreamville co-founder] played it for him. He called me like, “Do you know what you’re doing?” I was like, “Not really, I’m just kinda expressing myself.” That was definitely a big part of just having me come to live shows and studio sessions. Sometimes you don’t need to be taught or told anything, you just need to be shown: A. what the possibilities are or B. the right way to do things. Playing festivals now, I’m grateful I came up around n—as that were real performers, and care about the craft of a live show.
You can tell a lot of kids now don’t have no clue. It’s a two-track playing with the vocals, and they’re not rapping a single word. Not just Cole, I got to see a lot of great performers. The Club Paradise Tour, with Drake headlining, and seeing him and Cole perform every night. I’ve been to a few Kanye [West] shows — and outside rap, I remember seeing Florence + the Machine, and that’s a whole other level of performance and vocal control. I think it’s just being exposed to these things. People just don’t get to see it, and it’s hard to really understand what’s possible for you unless you see it.
What do you guys do to keep your mental sanity outside of the studio with how crazy the industry can be?
Bas: I like to smoke weed and play video games. It’s a good escape and reset. I got a puppy now, some good smoke, and movies. As far as my own peace, I wish I could lie and say I’ve been meditating and s–t, but I’ve been getting high and playing video games. Right now, I’m playing a lot of NBA 2K, FIFA and whatever the homies are on.
Rexx Life Raj: What keeps me sane is the idea that you’re a normal person outside of this rap s–t. I feel like a lot of artists get lost in their persona. Sometimes it be hard for me to connect with n—as, because you are so much this thing that you’ve built, so it’s hard to have a deep connection with you. A lot of n—as believe this thing they created, which is tight, but I feel like if you could navigate and do both, but I met n—as who never turn it off. I feel like that’s a weird headspace to live in. You don’t do no normal n—a s–t at all? Rap is part of your life, it’s not your whole life.
Bas: I wanna offer my condolences to Raj, and just commend you for putting that into art. A lot of things you said definitely resonated. I think it’s important — we need artists like you to keep going through these emotions, and sharing these very vulnerable spaces in their lives.