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Rexx Life Raj Is Flourishing And Wants You To Do The Same

Music
photo by marco alexander

Watch his video for “Level Up,” premiering here

Confidence is an integral part of being a rapper. From the wooziest SoundCloud MC to the most politically aware conscious rhymer, there’s a certain amount of braggadocio and a sense of knowing you belong that just comes with the territory. But trying to spread that confidence to your listener is a uniquely challenging balancing act. Nail it and you’re Chance the Rapper, go overboard and you’re Macklemore.

Berkeley’s Rexx Life Raj is hewing a lot closer to the former, and his latest project, Father Figure 2: Flourish, manages to uplift and motivate without preaching or veering into cheesy self-help territory. It’s a testament to Raj’s tremendous charisma on the mic, unique spin on the Bay Area sound, and unflappable mentality that Father Figure 2 is such a cohesive, distinct vision. For Raj, that purpose is partially inspired by advice he received from his parents, who offered nuggets of wisdom throughout the project.

I try to look at things from a grand scheme of things. I don’t want to look back, in five to 10 years, and wish I’d done something different. My dad would always tell me, ‘You don’t want to get to my age and have hella regrets, wish you’d stuck to a plan or saved your money,’” Raj explains over the phone. “Everything I do is thinking 10 to 15 years down the road. I’d rather be disciplined now and not go out and go to parties, and stay in the studio and bring Rexx Life [along] as a brand, because I know I’m going to appreciate that so much more down the road. It’s easy to get lost in the moment of right now, and I feel like that’s what a lot of people do because it’s what they have.”

Raj is future-facing in a way that it seems much of modern rap is not. Young artists nowadays can blow up and fade away in a matter of months, and many seem to lack a clear plan beyond doing the same thing that brought them their initial success to diminishing returns. But Raj, who played four years of Division I football at Boise State before moving back to the Bay to pursue music, understands that treading water in today’s saturated rap ecosystem puts you on the fast track to irrelevance. 

I am the walking personification of 'life is what you make it,’" he raps on Father Figure 2 standout “Ventilation Pt. 3.” Later, he spits, “You ain't changed in years, I'm unimpressed/ Ignorant about yo money got you gettin’ finessed.”

Anyone who’s ever used music to power through the end of a workout or motivate themselves  to lock in on a tough assignment will find motivational gems on Father Figure 2. “Level Up” is one such track, and the single’s video, premiering below, takes us through Raj’s journey from Berkeley kid to college athlete to bubbling MC.

Raj released the first Father Figure in June 2016, and since then has had the kind of whirlwind 18 months that follow a breakout project. He toured heavily, released the bouncy, absurdly titled Emoji Goats EP with Oakland rapper-singer Ymtk, and soaked up knowledge from a hip-hop luminary with the best skin in music: Pharrell. Of course, none of this was totally serendipitous—in fact, Raj had scripted it the year before.

“It’s funny because last year, me and Ari [my manager] sat down, and I was like, ‘We need to put together a list of goals that we need to get done this year.’ We’d been going crazy, we hadn’t necessarily been winging it, but we’d just been doing shit,” he explains. “We lost the goals, but I remember one on there was to tap in with a legacy artist, somebody hella big… And it’s funny because we tapped in with Pharrell and Scott Storch. That was insane.”

Raj says he took advantage of the opportunity to soak up knowledge from one of the most important architects of modern music, and that he used that wisdom while finishing up Father Figure 2.

“He was like, 'When you’re making an album—he was talking about all the greatest albums from MJ to Biggie albums to Nas’ Illmatic—all these albums were short albums, maybe nine to 10 tracks,'” Raj recalls. “There were no fillers, every moment meant something. It was short, and it made every moment count. No misses. Every beat drop, every interlude makes sense.”

There’s little-wasted space on Father Figure 2. Introspective tracks like “Paradise,” and “Ventilation Pt. 3,” are balanced by romantic cuts like “Lowkey Lovesong” and “More Love,” as well as more lighthearted songs like “Neighborhood Dopeman” and “Forever Lit” with G-Eazy. There’s also more political commentary from Raj on records like “The Otherside” (“Black lives matter 'till you dead on the news/ They only put you there so the channel get more views”), “Fiji” (“I know what this skin tone mean, already targeted”), and “2Free” (“Black lives matter until your black life splatter right there on the curb my n***a”). 

Raj says that those songs were a product of his headspace at the time and that when he writes, it’s usually pure stream-of-consciousness penned in the studio. According to Ian McKee, who produced or co-produced four tracks on the album, it’s one of the qualities that makes Raj an ideal collaborator.

He’s always down to build on the spot,” says McKee, who also hosts the podcast The Based Space. “He doesn’t have to take the beat and go hide for a week and figure out what he wants to do with it.”

His spontaneous approach makes his music feel especially singular. While he has some songs more in line with the dominant sound of the Bay Area, he’s also thoroughly comfortable in his own skin. This comes across when he’s discussing the current wave of young trap rappers who have steered much of hip-hop’s narrative this year. Though Raj isn’t necessarily a huge fan (“We need more Kendricks and less Soulja Boys,” he raps on “Ventilation”), he also sees a lot of the criticism as being misdirected.

“I’m not mad at the artist, you can’t be mad at the artist. You need to be mad at the society that’s glorifying and magnifying it. If we didn’t give it attention and put it on platforms, they wouldn't be doing it,” he says. “You can’t be mad at an impressionable 16- or 17-year-old dude who’s fixated on Instagram and lost in the sauce and then has a manager who says, ‘Yo, get gold teeth, get face tats. You’ll be on.’ I feel like people’s anger and frustration is in the wrong places.”

Going forward, Raj plans to put out a handful more high-concept videos off of Father Figure 2craft more novella-length Instagram captions (for which he’s coined the hashtag “CaptionGod”), and fine-tune his unique brand of heady, inspiring Bay Area hip-hop.

“For a lot of people, putting out the album is the fun part. For me, [it’s] making the album, doing the tour, mixing and mastering. I enjoy all aspects of doing shit,” he says, harkening back to his “the grind is everything” days on the football field. “It’s not just the big-ass shows, those are fun, but I like the small details.”

photo by marco alexander

Nail polish is for novices

Fashion label The Blonds is known for its high-intensity looks that you'd only wear if you wanted to stand out (and who doesn't?). For its runway shows, wild press-on nails are the beauty step that can't be missed. So, since the brand has partnered with CND since it was founded, we thought it best to get prepped for the show with Jan Arnold, CND's co-founder.

See why you should take your nail look from a zero to a 10, in the video above.

Credits:
Shot by Charlotte Prager
Edited by Gretta Wilson
Produced by Alexandra Hsie
Production Assistant: Polina Buchak
Featuring Jan Arnold of CND Nails and The Blonds

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Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.

It would've been nice if someone said the word "fat"

Back in November, Rebel Wilson claimed to be the first plus-sized lead in a romantic comedy when she appeared on Ellen to talk about her role in Isn't It Romantic. Wilson was not only wrong, but she was—even if inadvertently—erasing the work of Black plus-size actresses like Queen Latifah and Mo'Nique, both of whom have expansive resumes that include romantic comedies.

Wilson's comment isn't the first example of white women taking up a little too much space in the fat acceptance ethos. It's actually quite common. But there is a reason why women like Wilson—women who are blonde, pretty, successful, and white—get put front and center in calls for body positivity. In the same way that feminism—the movement from which body positivity was born—has often failed to address how gender intersects with other identities like race and class; so, too, has body positivity been championed as a cause for otherwise privileged women. And that's why it's no surprise that Isn't It Romantic, which aspires to be both a spot-on mockery of rom-coms and a celebration of body positivity, is actually a perfect example of how very white both the movie genre and the body positivity movement tend to be.

In the film, Wilson plays Natalie, an architect based in New York, who is single and plus-sized—the archetypal rom-com underdog. Very early on in the movie, she endures the double humiliation of both being hit by a runaway food cart and then accosted by its owner for not stopping it with her "cement truck"-like body. At work, Natalie is similarly disrespected: The office manager hands off troubleshooting tasks to Natalie; another colleague always tasks Natalie to throw out his trash; her assistant Whitney (Betty Gilpin) won't stop watching movies (rom-coms, naturally) while in the office; and Natalie is so afraid to present her ideas for more innovative parking garage designs that she isn't even widely known in the firm as an architect, and is treated like an intern.

But is Natalie just a doormat? Or is it that she isn't asking for what she wants? And isn't very nice about not getting it? If Natalie's life is any example, the bar on suffering is set pretty low for white women. In her personal life, Natalie lives alone with her dog, and seems to be pretty well-off, financially; her best friend is actually her slacker assistant, Whitney, and she's close with another coworker, Josh (Adam Devine), who gives Natalie constant emotional support. She's decidedly anti-romantic, having been told by her mother from a young age that there's no such thing as real-life fairy tales; she's level-headed and practical. But also, she's filled with self-loathing. This leads her to be crass, sarcastic, and disconnected from people. And it was this last part that was hard for me. As a fat Black woman who grew up broke, does not have an assistant, and would get fired if I didn't do my job well, it was hard, if not impossible, to root for her.

For Natalie, though, everything changes when she bangs her head while fighting off a mugger. Her mundane life is tinted through rosy rom-com glasses. Suddenly, all the things that sucked about her life are gone, and everything is beautiful and perfect. But was her life so bad before? It didn't really seem to be.

And yet, looking around the theater at the mostly white, female audience, I accepted that my feelings didn't seem to be shared. But that almost seems to be by design; this feels like a movie for a white, female audience. There is only one person of color in the movie who even has a name: It's Isabelle (Priyanka Chopra), who shows up about halfway through the film—after everything has been rom-com filtered—as a yoga ambassador and swimsuit model. But a name is all Isabella has. A supporting character at best, she doesn't have any connection to anyone other than her white boyfriend, and is sketchily drawn. We learn nothing of her familial or ethnic background, and, even when she is shown at her wedding, there is nobody from her family celebrating with her. This huge oversight is particularly bizarre, given that Natalie has already bemoaned the lack of diversity in romantic films.

Another huge oversight? The presence of the word "fat." I don't think I heard it used a single time. Natalie only references her weight indirectly, by commenting on the appearance of straight-sized women; when talking about her own body, the word "fat" is replaced with "girl like me." But by ignoring this aspect of herself, and refusing to address it head-on, Natalie is succumbing to the same fatphobia that shapes her world, whether she identifies it as being a problem or not.

Before her life becomes a rom-com, Natalie feels invisible at work and in the world. Some of this is certainly her fault, but fatphobia is also at play. Fatphobia chips away at the humanity of fat people from different angles. It means that Natalie gets used to being dehumanized; she doesn't expect others to have empathy for her when she's physically hurt, because they don't value her body. And it's no coincidence that Natalie's fantasy world includes a magically bigger apartment with unlimited clothing options, because discrimination against fat people isn't just a matter aesthetics and preferences—it affects everything from our ability to dress ourselves to our ability to make and save money, since there's a price to pay for being fat, even if it's just having to pay more to travel. Just as much as gender and race intersect with fat bodies, so, too, do economics and class.

I knew I could count on a plus-sized white comedian to take down a genre of films that prioritized thin women. But I ventured to see if Wilson could go further than that, and challenge what it means to be white and well-off and fat in the process; it isn't just about taking down rom-coms but about doing so in a way that isn't just a mouthpiece for white feminist values. But, in the end, that isn't what happened. Isn't It Romantic is fine, but it needed to do more than target an audience of girls who are 10 to 30 pounds overweight and still too jolted by the word "fat" to ever apply it to themselves, so they go for acceptable alternatives, like curvy, plus-sized—or thicc, if they're hip. But I'm not afraid to say I'm fat, I'm just disappointed I will be waiting even longer to see a realistic reflection of that experience onscreen.

Isn't It Romantic is in theaters now.