In the great words of rap journalist Jeff Weiss, “fame is the most toxic thing in this world.” A lot of artists nowadays-especially hip hop/R&B ones-gain notoriety before they even understand what it means. Much like a highly-touted college athlete, 17, 18 and 19 year-old musicians are scouted by labels off of a major Soundcloud hit (Lil Nas X), or significant cult fanbase (Logic). Very rarely do we see situations like JID’s or Dababy’s; someone who’s reaching their apex as a seasoned professional.
In the case of Alex O’Connor-aka Rex Orange County-it was an apprenticeship with Tyler, the Creator that propelled him to mid-level prominence. His work on Flower Boy coincided tremendously with Tyler’s growing intimacy and vulnerability in his newer music (another large trend in modern rap). The popular aesthetic became the basis for O’Connor’s solo material, specifically on his first two projects bcos u will never b free and Apricot Express. The latter carried some surprising sonic ambition for a 19 year-old who produces his own music. Couple that with lush instrumentation, and it’s no wonder Tyler was so infatuated with the guy.
Unfortunately, Rex’s newest album, Pony, is a minor step back. It’s clear the sad-boy aesthetic has its limitations, especially when it’s done with little nuance. O’Connor proclaimed 2018 as his toughest year by far in a recent interview with NPR, a reference he openly makes on Pony’s first highlight, “10/10”-“I had a year that nearly set me off the edge/I feel like a 5, I can’t pretend.” He even admits to fame almost burying his artistry and mental health in the same interview. This is an interesting revelation coming from a guy who seemed to be vying for recognition on Flower Boy’s intro track “Foreword” (“And if I drown and don’t come back/Who’s gonna know”).
The added pressure of being signed to a major label (RCA in this case) could be the reason for his tribulations, and if that’s the case, I really can’t blame him. It’s a whole other ballgame when you’re not making independent bedroom pop anymore. Once you’ve “made it,” there’s a lot more expected of you, particularly in time period where a 21 year-old on his third project is considered a veteran.
At certain points on Pony, Rex lets his newfound fame get the best of him. He’s either doing too much (like on the incredibly tedious finale “It’s Not the Same Anymore”) or too little; like on the peculiar “Stressed Out”-a song that plays out like an interlude but really isn’t an interlude, I guess.
Compared to previous records, Pony‘s production carries more subtly-an attribute demonstrating mixed results. For example, “Always” features a slick R&B backdrop with distant horn sections that intermittently reach the forefront of the production. O’Connor’s rangy vocals make for a compelling experience, despite some trite songwriting about a relationship gone wrong.
On the flip side, a song’s sparseness can lead to banality. Never Had the Balls” loses its emotional merit by the chorus, and Rex’s mundane sing-rap style doesn’t help either. The syncopated baseline and sharp violin stabs make for a clunky experience. Meanwhile, “Every Way” encompasses some interested starting points for a poignant love song until it fades out into an empty abyss-another instance of lost potential.
Thankfully, those moments of promise develop into fascinating anecdotes in certain moments. “Face to Face” balances a heartfelt chorus with some much-needed introspection about homesickness-a concept that continues to dominate the content of young artists (YBN Cordae’s Lost Boy is a perfect example). Rex is at his best when he’s animated, specifically when he’s singing about mental grievances-“She calmed me down that night I freaked out/We stayed up, I threw up in that house.”
He’s also been compared to Frank Ocean in the past a ridiculous expectation to say the least. Very few artists can replicate the unpredictability and nuanced songwriting of the insular artist. Although, Rex does come close on “Pluto Projector,” one of his greatest orchestrations to date. The backing vocals are equal parts optimistic and weary of hardships. Rex’s pen is sharper than it’s ever been-“The great protector/Is that what I’m supposed to be?/What if it counts for nothing/Everything I thought I’d be.” Never before has he explored modern masculine tropes so effortlessly, and with unadulterated wisdom. It’s a shame he wasn’t able to extend that snapshot more zealously across all ten tracks.
Instead, O’Connor wanders into constant triviality. His infectious vocals are still present, as is the luxurious string arrangements courtesy of longtime friend Ben Baptie. He just can’t seem to leave the plainness of angsty sad-boy writing. Fame and trendiness are so annoying.