RJ doesn’t put together thoughts the way the average person might. Ask him how his new single, “Brackin,” is being received and he’ll pause, consider and say, “I’ve got a few friends that are involved in strip clubs” who can serve as judge and jury. This is the same sort of slightly off-kilter thinking that will lead him to tell you he moved to Georgia the year Obama was elected. It’s these brain waves that have been quietly crafting some of the country’s sharpest rap music for a handful of years now. With his latest record, Mr. L.A., out now, people outside of his hometown might finally catch up.

After a string of impressive mixtapes, highlighted by his O.M.M.I.O. series and massive local hits “Get Rich” and “Flex,” RJ has finally secured an official deal. By signing with his longtime collaborators YG and DJ Mustard, he becomes the first artist on their joint 400 Summers venture. The extra visibility comes at an opportune time, as Mr. L.A. is not only RJ’s finest work to date, but his most distinctly Californian.

Over lobster pizza in a West Los Angeles cafe, RJ and his manager, Lemmie, talk about their eagerness to unleash the tape on the world. It was Lemmie who, upon RJ’s return from Georgia in 2012, introduced him to YG and orchestrated their first collaboration, “Bitchez,” from Just Re’d Up 2.

“I feel like L.A. alone is going to be happy about the project,” RJ says, draped in a vintage Seattle Supersonics jersey. “I’m the next young artist rising. When you come to L.A. and ask about rappers, my name is gonna pop up."

Read on as RJ discusses his influences, history and inspiration for his music.

XXLMr. L.A. seems like it’s shaping up to be your biggest record yet. How do you feel?

RJ: I feel like it’s one of my best projects, as far as theme and concept go. And the features: everybody jumped on it and helped out. So I’m feeling real confident about the project, man, it’s real dope. And this is just the beginning, you know? And I like the controversy of the name. It’s real bold.

Right. "Who gets to call themselves Mr. L.A.?"

Exactly. I’ve been calling myself that for a while, but people didn’t start detesting it until I started popping, until I started having success with it. I get comments like, "You’re not the real Mr. L.A., such and such is!" or "Such and such been putting it down longer than you!" I just be like, "Hey, they should’ve called themselves Mr. L.A." I decided I wanted to take the name and run with it.

And keep in mind, the title is not about being the king of L.A. I’m not trying to be the king, that’s not who I am—I am a king, but not reigning from a throne. It’s moreso like, I’m holding down the city, I’m holding down my hometown, and I’m doing it well. I feel like I’m one of the artists who’s got L.A. on his back. Obviously we’ve got Kendrick, Nipsey Hussle, YG, Dom Kennedy, Mustard. All of these artists fit the criteria of being kings of the coast. I’m just saying I rep it to the fullest. I’m Mr. L.A. I embody the aura of L.A.

To back up for those who aren’t familiar with you, can you talk about where you grew up?

89th and Normandie is where my grandma lives. She had owned an apartment building and we were over there for a while. My whole family’s from Compton, but I’m not from Compton. I’ve got family there, though, so I’d go back and forth all the time. But 89th and Normandie, that’s South Central.

With sports and different activities, I bounced around a lot. Baseball, basketball, football—my pops even had me boxing. He had me damn near playing golf, anything to keep me active [laughs]. I thought I was gonna go pro at something—whatever sport was up next. Being active in sports had me traveling a lot, getting out of the area. I went to five different high schools. I was actually a second-year senior; I dropped out of high school in the beginning of my [first] senior year. I left for a whole year and went back.

What’d you do for the rest of the year?

I was just thugging. At the house, getting my mind right. Trying to get money. Just trying to stay active and keep from being bored. I got into trouble, but I stayed out of trouble at the same time. There was a lot going on that year. Then my homie graduated from high school; he was someone I looked up to. So I was like damn, I gotta go back to high school. I went back to my home school, which was Washington Prep.

I did it and I graduated. But by this time, I was gangbanging. I’m a Blood at a Crip school. I’m true to my colors, so I’m wearing what I wear, flamed up at the bus stop, all kind of shit. And I’m not saying that to glorify it, I’m just telling a part of the story. I always had predecessors who schooled me on what was the right thing to do. "Don’t be out here thugging like that," because they’d always see more for me. Even on my pop’s death bed, he was like, "Get out the streets and go to school. Take an English class. Focus on your rapping."

I always had people giving me advice, but as knuckleheads we just wanted to live our own lives. We wanted to experience life on our own. That was my biggest problem and my greatest quality, at the same time. I wanted to see life for myself, not through somebody else’s eyes. But I got wiser and started seeing through others, learning from their mistakes.

For the next couple of years I was trying to figure it out. Trying to get into school, go to college. But my pops passed away, so I was the man of the house and had to figure out how to get this money. Jobs is cool, but jobs don’t make enough. It’s slow. So, you know, we’re hustling, grinding. Doing anything to get our hands on everything. Just trying to find my way. It’s an eternal search for self. I was writing heavy, too.

How’d you get linked up with YG and Mustard?

Lemmie [my manager] was how I got connected with YG and Mustard. It was when YG and Mustard were starting to rise. Lemmie knew I could rap, he knew I was hard. But I didn’t work as hard [as he wanted]. There would be days when I wouldn’t rap, and he would hit me on the phone like, "Man, you ain’t in the studio?" So we would go to his homie’s house, all the way in Corona, an hour away, to record. He just stayed on my head. He wasn’t my manager, he was just the homie.

Once the records started to break—specifically ‘Get Rich’—how did it feel to catch yourself on the radio and out of car speakers?

It was big. It made me feel like I was doing something right, finally. Everything is like that. Finally. We know what we’ve got. We’re waiting for people to catch up. We make dope music—damn near the best. If you go down my catalog, there’s a gang of songs you can ride to. It’s a breath of fresh air, and I’m grateful. It’s a humbling feeling: at last. When my music started playing on the radio, people would call me. "I I just heard ‘Get Rich’ on the radio!"

But when it happens over and over, it begins to be mundane. It becomes normal. I pray for humility, so it’s still a humbling feeling. It’s like, okay, we’ve got that [song], what’s the next one? Let’s go back to work.

Looking through the credits, it seems like you assembled a pretty great team of producers. Mustard, Swish...

Me and Swish wasn’t fucking with each other for a while, so [having him here] is important. That’s big. We came to our senses and settled our differences. Now it’s like, we know the importance of the music we make together. We could go do music with anybody else, but together we built this sound. It’s important that we stay on the same page and get things going.

Who do you see as your musical predecessors?

I’ve obviously got the Death Row, funky sound, but there’s also a little taste of my time spent in Georgia. Georgia’s very melodic. Atlanta and the South, they’re more melodic than straight rap—most of their hits, especially. I took some of their sauce, some of L.A.’s sauce and put it together. It meshed perfectly. You’ve gotta embody these sounds. I had my own studio in Georgia, and people from the neighborhood used to come to my house [to record]. We used to work together, so I used to adapt their style. You feel me? I can’t really compare my sound to nobody because I don’t sound like nobody. I’m a West coast rapper, and I don’t stray away from my roots, but I do add to them.

What experiences or emotions do you draw on when you write?

I’ve got a lot of experience in the world, of things I did before rap. And I still reflect on that. I still got hurt that I’m dealing with from my pops passing away. Or I still have emptiness from when my moms was working two jobs—solitude.

I don’t wanna be a preacher, I don’t wanna be a know it all. I just want you to feel it and to get through your day. I want you to be able to look in the mirror and love yourself. I don’t wanna throw shade or nothing like that, but a lot of people down other people. I don’t want my music to be gloomy. I want you to be able to play my music at a funeral and turn up.

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