It’s eleven in the morning and I’m sat in The Tankard, an Irish pub a few minutes down from Elephant and Castle in south London, nursing a beer with the local day drinkers. It’s the kind of chintzy establishment where the tables are lacquered with decades of spillages, the buttons on the off-colour slot machine are worn in, and the regulars spill tobacco over their trousers while watching the horse racing. On the one hand it’s a fitting (if slightly tenuous) location to meet with the Dublin born rapper Rejjie Snow; on the other it’s an error – he stopped drinking five months ago.
“I had a rough night last night, I’m trying to get back to life,” he explains when he arrives, clutching a plastic blue off-licence bag traditionally reserved for tinnies but that instead holds a smoothie. It’s the night after the BRIT Awards and Rejjie had been out until 6AM – not so much partying as catching up with old friends. In the last year or so, he’s floated from coast to coast writing for his debut album Dear Annie, moving between Los Angeles, New York, Paris and London, where he lives and shares a flat just up the road with a stranger he met on Spare Room.
As many of Rejjie’s fans will be aware, Dear Annie has been teased for years – nearly half a decade – before emerging this February in a stream of colourful jazz and soul ("23"), telling stories of love and lust (“Egyptian Luvr”) that sound as though they’ve been beamed down from a flower garden somewhere above the clouds (“Spaceships”). Though the existence of the record seemed like a troll at times – akin to this generation’s Jay Electronica debut or Dr Dre’s Detox, being spoken about but never actually released – the real reason for the delay is that Rejjie’s journey toward releasing Dear Annie is couched in demise, fear, destruction and loss that all came before ultimately culminating in positive personal growth and discovery.
Day ones will remember Rejjie when he went as Lecs Luther, releasing his debut track “Dia Dhuit” to YouTube in August 2011. Label offers quickly followed, as did music video premieres on this website, and a deal with Elton John’s management company. Back then, Rejjie was 18 years old and still finding his place in the world. Or to put it more bluntly, he was coming to terms with growing up as a black man in Ireland. “When I lived in Dublin it was hard to be myself out there. I’ve had identity issues my whole life: I had a lot of stuff in me I couldn’t fully get out or vent or express,” he says, speaking with the calm assured tone of someone now comfortable in themselves, who has developed a lot in seven years.
As a teen – whether through watching music videos by American artists on YouTube, spraying graffiti across Dublin’s streets, tattooing his skin or learning to breakdance (he went to a stage school on the weekends and also knows his way around a pair of tap shoes), Rejjie wanted to “be somebody”, it just wasn’t clear at that young age in Dublin who that “somebody” was. It was only when he moved to London a few years ago – a multicultural city that is the exact opposite of Dublin – that he started to feel “more me”. And pretty soon after setting up house, he flowed into the sea of south London’s music scene: hanging out and freestyling with King Krule (who has an uncredited feature on “The Wonderful World of Annie”) and making songs with Loyle Carner and Jesse James Solomon.
Still, he was young and in his early twenties, and the pressure of creating an album became a lot, too much too soon. Though Rejjie released tracks here and there – 2015’s silky smooth tune “All Around The World” is one particular stand-out – it was signing a deal with the American label 300 Entertainment (Young Thug, Fetty Wap, etc) that made him get into the studio and finish his debut album. It was a release he spoke into existence many years ago on Twitter, frequently telling fans Dear Annie was on the way, but which ended up being preceded by one-off singles and 2017 mixtape The Moon & You instead. It was kind of like how his label mate Young Thug is yet to release HiTunes.
“I made music but didn’t know the right time to release it,” Rejjie says of the time it took for Dear Annie to materialise. Looking from the outside in though – and having interviewed Rejjie several times over the course of his career, as well as hanging out casually – I get the sense that releasing a debut record loomed too large, that it wasn’t something Rejjie was ready for, that he still needed to figure himself out and see where he fell in the world. “I’m over all that now though,” he says, when I put this to him. And overcoming fear wasn’t the only roadblock to the record’s release either. In the last two years Rejjie lost three close friends. “It was really close to home and there was a lot of confusion. That shit fucked me up a little bit and for a while I didn’t want to make music or jet away to do shows. I needed to find the time within myself. But that’s hard…. Because if I’m not doing shows I’m not making money, and it was frustrating to think about making an album during that time.”
Speaking today however – and with Dear Annie living and breathing – it’s clear Rejjie is on the other side. Or at the least he’s smiling. “Going through that process [of loss], you learn a lot of shit doesn’t matter. I learned what’s important in life: family, love, friends. Those are the things I really hold onto now.” For a moment we pause, talking about some other things, of how reading the book Widow Basquiat – an exploration of the self-destructive artist as seen through the eyes of his muse, Suzanne – helped him go through things. Then he continues: “I really love life now, and people. I’m a lot more understanding for people’s feelings now. Before that I used to push people off and not want to know them and be super negative. It was always an image thing, a masculinity thing, and now I feel like I’m over that shit – I’m unapologetically myself.”
Part of Rejjie’s journey of self-discovery also involves learning more about and accepting his heritage. Years ago, outside of rap, Rejjie went by the name Alex Butler; now he goes by his birth name of Alex Anyaegbunam. His mother is Irish, his father is Nigerian, part of the Igbo tribe, and his grandfather is a Nigerian judge who worked in one way or another to free Fela Kuti from jail. These roots are something Rejjie wants to explore more in the future, already talking about a second record he’s naming Uncle Thomas, which he says “will deal with being a black man in a white man’s world.”
“I’m really interested in learning more about where my dad is from. I always brushed it off because I thought I was Irish and that was it, I didn’t want to be anything else. But talking to him… I really want to go back there now as a 24-year-old and experience all that culture. I think it will lend itself into my music a lot.”
Last week, Rejjie Snow played the Roundhouse. The north London venue is large – I’ve seen everyone from Rick Ross to Taking Back Sunday play here – so it’s a good representation of how far he has come. Three years earlier he was playing in the Old Blue Last, a small pub in east London; now he’s heading up a bill that includes Ebeneezer, Slowthai and Wiki, and performing to around 5,000 people. Most of them are a similar age to Rejjie, if not younger, the kind of kids you imagine to spend time on Wavey Garms. In fact, some of the crowd are so young, two of them ask me to buy them alcohol. Clearly, like Lil Yachty, Rejjie Snow is another king of the teens, a prince of the fashion-obsessed Snapchat era.
From the drunken notes that sit on my iPhone, the Roundhouse performance went something like this – “It’s almost like Dipset but with love instead of cocaine. Vibes instead of rolling dice.”; “[his DJ] Skinny [Macho, the man behind record label Bone Soda] is wearing a fur hat and orange coat”; “Party people let's do this shit let's go”; “Bucket hat glasses blue lights pimp bounce”. Essentially what I can decipher from this with a sober mind is: Rejjie Snow puts on a gig with positive vibes, quirky yet cool dress sense, which sounds and looks like a classic rap show through and through. Considering he’s only just released his debut album and is already playing such a large venue, there’s a sense the next record from Rejjie could propel him toward somewhere special. That said, that’s also not something to think about right now. Music will come, when it feels right, when Rejjie is ready.
As it stands, the best part of this journey and Dear Annie is that it sounds like Rejjie Snow has found himself. In his earlier years he could be found rapping in an American accent but now the Irish inflections in his voice come through. Though the record is informed by a selection of source material – soul, Bootsy Collins, Ramp, all coming together to create something “that would be on the radio in the 70s” – it’s the first record that also feels unequivocally and fearlessly Rejjie Snow. Off record, he’s chilled out now. He meditates, takes yoga classes, believes in love. He wants to move back to Dublin at some point, he says. Ultimately, the weight of a debut record off his back, he’s entering a new chapter: “I never set out to do this. It was all luck. It’s all for a reason too.” Guinness or fruit-based smoothie in hand, that’s something to drink to.
You can find Ryan on Twitter.