For someone who was once dubbed “The Internet’s new favourite sad boy” after rising to prominence overnight following heavy contributions to Tyler, the Creator’s Flower Boy album, Rex Orange County’s latest project is exceptionally positive and uplifting. While the British indie-pop singer wastes no time diving into some of his usual topics of depression, imposter syndrome and crushing expectations, this time around it all comes accompanied by Disney-style orchestral swells, bouncy and feel-good piano riffs and basslines, and inspirational, affirming lyrics from Rex imploring listeners that their best is good enough. The album’s title, Who Cares?, ultimately becomes somewhat of a triple entendre depending on the frame of mind Rex is in, leaving it up to listeners’ interpretation. Just like his message, Rex’s musicality has come quite a long way from his often flat and empty lo-fi bedroom pop beginnings, as he provides some of his most impressive vocal work of his career over some engagingly complex rhythmic passages and interlocking parts. Blending jazzy elements with old-school hip-hop percussion and a huge dose of orchestral work, it’s a colourful musical palate for his distinctively scratchy vocal timbre.
Listeners are immediately plunged into the project’s feel-good energy with the opening track “KEEP IT UP,” as Rex acknowledges the struggles of day-to-day life and offers a mantra to keep pushing forward. There’s something about his earnest, genuine tone throughout the entire project that’s highly touching, especially when you consider how much of an improvement it is from his past music that often felt devoid of personality as Rex himself sang about being down in the dumps. Coasting on a variety of bright and sunny sounds as a jazzy bassline interacts with an orchestral backdrop, Rex’s improved musicality as different parts pop in and out gives the whole project a fun and playful energy that lifts spirits. “OPEN A WINDOW” makes even better use of Rex’s jazz background and newfound experimentation, teaming up once again with Tyler, the Creator. The pitched-down vocal sample chopped up to make a bassline is a truly distinctive and memorable sound, as Rex holds back and sinks naturally into the funk groove – the instrumental palates here are highly reminiscent of Late Registration-era Kanye, something that we know certainly inspired Tyler.
The next run of tracks contains three of the most heartfelt musical affirmations you’re likely to hear all year as Rex sends out positive vibes to anyone who happens to be listening. While a couple of these tracks seem to be from a more romantic angle, the sentiments are still applicable all the same. “WORTH IT” finds Rex snapping himself out of negative thoughts, responding to a chorus doubting himself and his impact with a peppy verse reminding himself not to be so hard on himself. The beat snaps onto a very regal-sounding chord progression in a quieter moment before the heart emojis begin flying on the next two tracks. “AMAZING” feels like a funkier update of Bruno Mars’ “JUST THE WAY YOU ARE,” with a smoother R&B-flavoured palate and the same puppy-love energy. Even though most of the project is predicated on orchestral elements and funk basslines, the slight switch-ups in style and delivery certainly help move it from repetition to cohesion. “ONE IN A MILLION” continues the positive affirmations, now in a more serious minor key as Rex adds some conviction to show that behind the goofy smile, he really means it. With a little more space in the instrumental, it’s an opportunity for Rex to show off some of his most impressive vocal moments as he belts out some high notes on one of the best choruses here.
The track “IF YOU WANT IT” signals a bit of a shift in the album as the tide of bright and positive sounds drops back a little as a couple more doubts creep back into Rex’s mind. “IF YOU WANT IT” feels like an admirable sonic experiment that didn’t really connect. Opening with some crunchier and slightly dissonant orchestral stabs that pair with industrial, rubbery synths and an echo filter on Rex’s vocals, there’s a big, catchy chorus at the center that feels a little drowned out by everything else going on. “7AM” finds Rex getting caught up in modern-day pressures and expectations of productivity as he offers his first fully negatively-tinged track – but in the context of this project, it should be seen as Rex subtly criticizing that mentality as he escapes from it elsewhere. With some distinctively Elton John-style piano riffs and a slower tempo, it’s a nice breather in the second half. “THE SHADE” feels more reminiscent of Rex’s old style than anything – right down to a vibe-heavy, overly chill chorus that doesn’t leave as much of an impression, but the more earthy and raw guitar tones are a nice touch as we venture through the album’s calmer back half.
The brief, vintage-sounding interlude “MAKING TIME” leads into the album’s longest track in “SHOOT ME DOWN,” another self-acceptance album as the project races to its final, uplifting conclusion. The switch from a fuzzier, anxious verse into a sunnier and more hopeful chorus with twinkling pianos is a great touch, as Rex leans into some stank face-worthy jazzier notes in the main melody. The project closes out with its title track, where its message reveals itself over bouncy pop-piano rhythms. Rex sings about finding the right people to surround yourself with as he plays around with the title’s meaning – who cares about who cares, that is, judges you for your choices, he asks, but also searches for who cares, the people who genuinely want to be around for him.
WHO CARES? is a tremendous step forward for Rex Orange County, finally bringing together all the talents we knew were bubbling under the surface in a cohesive way with an uplifting message that a lot of people likely need to hear right now. With this, Rex proves he’s well on his way out of the shadows of the megastars he was once associated with.
Favourite Tracks: ONE IN A MILLION, OPEN A WINDOW, AMAZING, KEEP IT UP, WHO CARES?
Least Favourite Track: IF YOU WANT IT