A new day is dawning over hip hop. Where once rock stars were kings of the youth, now they are rappers. The impact they’ve had on the world outside of rap has been bigger than anyone could have imagined and a new generation of kids, raised on the genre but born far outside its main hubs, has begun to take over. One such kid is Rex Orange County, the Surrey-born, London-based singer, rapper, and multi-instrumentalist taking hip hop in a whole new direction.
“Eminem was the first rapper I ever heard, and I thought the music was so cool,” Rex, real name Alex O’Connor, enthuses. “The first physical CD I bought was Paper Trail by T.I. in 2008… at that point, it just sounded good, but as I grew up, I just appreciated the beats more as well as people’s lyrics and tone of voice.” The hip hop O’Connor draws on these days is pretty far from T.I, even at his Paper Trail peak. Drop in on the young musician, and you’re more likely to find him bumping some Chance the Rapper or Kevin Abstract than listening to ‘No Mediocre.’ However, that mid-2000s school of rap is an undeniable influence on his work as Rex Orange County, from his use of Neptunes-style keys on breakout track ‘UNO’ to the blaring horns at the end of his latest track ‘Best Friend’.
Where Rex differs from many of the hip-hop-inspired acts out right now is his emotional honesty. With blunt humour, he tackles the kind of teenage crises that are all too familiar to anyone who’s grown up in the UK’s suburbs. “Although most teenage boys maybe wouldn’t open up like that, they’ve all felt strong emotions at some point. However much they chose to show,” he explains self-effacingly. “I just happen to be the type of teenage boy that will happily say that stuff.”
There’s not a hint of fear in it either. O’Connor opens his debut single ‘UNO’ with a frank admission – “I don’t know where to start. How do you admit that you’re falling apart?” It’s a sentiment that will resonate with most 18-year-olds, and quite a few of us in our 20s too, a lack of control that can feel all-consuming at times. However, with his debut album getting the Apple Music exclusive treatment and two features on Tyler, the Creator’s new album, plus an upcoming one with BadBadNotGood, Rex looks set to do anything but fall apart.
Despite the success, and a considerable amount of hype, O’Connor’s ambitions remain modest. “I don’t think I’ll change the future” he concedes, “but I’d like to think that I can somehow play a part in influencing the next generation of artists.” If the promise of his first two tracks is anything to go by, it might not be long before we see artists name dropping Rex Orange County alongside the greats.
This article first appeared in Notion 75.
Photography Alex De Mora
Fashion Clarissa Bowman
Hair Kristopher Smith using Bumble & Bumble
Makeup Josie Chan using Smashbox, Mac and Bobbi Brown Cosmetics
All clothes Artist’s Own
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