Lexii Alijai is soft-spoken, but her voice contains multitudes. Sitting in her basement studio in St. Paul, surrounded by 2Pac posters and surrealist prints, she answers questions with the same warm fragility she brings to her rap flow. Simultaneously emanating vulnerability and strength, the 17-year-old MC's vocal quality matches her introspective, soul-spilling lyrics of love, hurt, pain, and self-affirmation.
"I heard 'Crooked Smile' by [J. Cole], and that was the first song that ever did anything for me," says Alijai, and her music follows much of Cole's honest and conversational writing style. "It picked me up, and I never felt an artist do that for me. That's why I started getting more personal in my music. It's just cool to make people feel the same way that J. Cole made me feel."
Following in that style, Alijai honed her sound into a signature mix of raw, relatable, heartfelt lyricism. She's a talented technician well beyond her years, and her unique rap cadence rounds out the sound with a melodic tinge and an understated vehemence.
It's a combination that's getting noticed in Minnesota press and beyond. To date, the teenage rapper has amassed more than 20,000 Instagram followers and nearly 13,000 fans on music-streaming website SoundCloud. She even scored a write-up last spring in Complex magazine.
"Nobody ever used to care to listen to my music," she says, noting a dramatic uptick in social media followers and outreach from fans. "I think it's just the growth in everything. The delivery, my voice changed a lot, I'm talking about different stuff. People just look out now. They actually care."
Alijai played First Avenue's Best New Bands showcase earlier this month, and next Friday at Fine Line she'll open for Atlantic Records-signed R&B sensation Kehlani, who helped Alijai gain mainstream exposure thanks to a standout guest verse on single "Jealous."
"Somehow, through mutual friends, [Kehlani] heard my music, and we kind of just built a relationship over that summer," Alijai says. "She sent the record to me, and I just wrote it down while I was at school. I came [to the studio] the same day and recorded it. We sent it right back to her within the same day."
Next Friday's Fine Line bill, which includes local artists Dizzy Fae and DJ Keezy, is all-female, save for Thestand4rd's DJ Tiiiiiiiiiip. Alijai enjoys the "mental connection" between female performers, and says women tend to relate with her music's reflective takes on romantic relationships.
"They get it. The guys, you can take what you want from it," she says. "You can learn how to treat your girlfriend better, or learn what's going on inside of a girl's head. I'm so honest, you know what I mean, and I really put the guys on the spot. I just say stuff that every girl goes through, and they just can't say it. I just wanna make the guys better, too."
Alijai's most recent project, 2015's Joseph's Coat, focuses on relationship struggles, ultimately concluding loving one's self comes first. It fine-tunes some of the intensity and bravado that she brought to her previous projects, such as her 2014 debut feel•less, and Same Struggle, Different Story, last year's collaborative effort with rapper Shaun Sloan.
On Joseph's Coat, Alijai shifted from writing about her family struggles, which inspired profoundly heavy older songs like "Killer" and "No Cry," the latter of which featured Twin Cities R&B singer/former The Voice contestant Ashley DuBose. The vibe remains striking and carries similar weight on the new tracks, but expresses her thoughts on romantic discontentment and self-actualization.
"You got my mind, my body, and my spirit / Lotta feelings that I hide, you probably never hear it / Only time you know the truth when you listening to my lyrics," Alijai raps on recent single "By Your Side."
"With Joseph's Coat, I felt love for the first time," she says. "[On feel•less] I didn't know what that was. I was young; I didn't care about boys. So much has changed in a year. It just make you see stuff so differently."
The new album offers an in-depth glimpse into Alijai's mind. She doesn't flatten her material to appeal to a broader audience. Throughout the highly individualized-yet-relatable Joseph's Coat, there seems to be a drive to pay forward what personal, reflective art has given to Alijai.
"I like Lexii's ability to put into words the thoughts and feelings that so many can relate to, and to put them in such a clever and catchy way," says DuBose, who appeared on feel•less and featured Alijai on her most recent album, Be You. "I like that she's has a very shy and mysterious persona. I thought she fit. She had a very real perspective to offer, and her flow is so smooth and delectable."
Alijai's hybrid style blends melodic R&B with trap drums and flipped samples, and she grabs guest spots from both rappers and singers to reflect her own dual sensibilities. When tapping into her own sensitivities and emotional hardships, she filters her feelings through a strident flow, turning pain into strength. Does the music serve a therapeutic purpose for her? When asked, she shrugs.
"Sometimes I watch music documentaries with artists talking about how [they write music] to get stuff off of their chest, you know," she says. "But I don't know if that's how it is for me or if I just haven't realized that that's what I do. I just write."
Without revealing specifics, Alijai reports having discovered a new potential source of inspiration for her upcoming project, but you can be certain of her approach. For Alijai, the future is exploding with potential, and she says her earnest, heart-on-sleeve music will always remain true to herself.
"I don't like forcing anything, I just like to make it and see what happens."
With: Kehlani, Dizzy Fae, DJ Tiiiiiiiiiip.
When: 9 p.m. Friday, Jan. 29.
Where: Fine Line.
Tickets: $3 with RSVP, $10 without; more info here.
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