Growing up, Rexx Life Raj didn’t think he could sing. His family was active in the local church choir and the bar seemed too high for him, so he found an artistic outlet in rapping instead.
But melody has turned out to be one of the 28-year-old rapper’s most formidable strengths. On his second album, Father Figure 2: Flourish, the Berkeley artist flashes a dexterous flow and a rich, dynamic delivery as a singer, rendering FF2 as much of an accomplishment in R&B as it is in hip-hop.
Like any good Bay Area rap album, much of FF2 is predicated on a swagger that emerges from — and in spite of — struggle. But now, this rapper has found enlightenment and purpose. On “Never Had Shit,” Raj reconciles the roles of the two central figures in his life, his parents, finally making sense of advice they gave him when he was younger. Later, on “Level Up” — a horn-heavy banger backed by the Mary Jane Girls’ “All Night Long” sample — he channels his youthful rebellion into professional drive: “Now look at how the stars align / You know that it takes some time,” he sings softly before the bass drops into a bouncy, ecstatic hook.
Raj’s confident flair is strong on tracks like “Level Up” and “Forever Lit,” which features G-Eazy, but he’s also more than willing to show his sensitive side. On perhaps the album’s most overtly New Edition-style R&B love song, “More Than Enough,” he channels his inner Johnny Gill, convincing his girl that he’s worth the trouble (“I still don’t show emotions that I feel / Mindful of flaws that I won’t reveal / Acting like you won’t accept me when I know you will.”)
FF2’s production features a welcome slate of Bay Area producers who comprise one of the nation’s most overlooked and creative hip-hop scenes. Among them are largely unheralded workhorses like Ian McKee and Kyle Betty, along with rising producers Drew Banga, Mikos Da Gawd, and JULiA LEWiS (all highlighted in KQED Arts’ Behind the Beats series). LEWiS presides over the album’s cleanest beat, on the perfectly punchy and rhythmically precise “Lowkey Lovesong.”
Throughout FF2, Raj sprinkles in audio of his parents bestowing words of encouragement and wisdom. They advise him on his career, reflect on the uniqueness of the Bay Area, and affirm their support of his journey. For Raj — a former college football player and Boise State graduate — FF2 is his statement on love, loss, growing up, and the hustle it takes to rise in the ranks of one’s chosen craft. It’s a triumphant celebration of the happiness and success he’s found in striving for his goals as an artist and man.
We’ll be posting our top 10 local albums of 2017 every day through Dec. 22. Check back here to see which other albums made our list.