In 2014, RaRa stood in an ornate church in downtown Atlanta, arguing his case with one of his managers. The team had just wrapped the shoot for his song “Pray For Me,” with Ra, born Rodriguez Smith, passionately acting as a preacher on the pulpit between the hooks. He had taken out a handkerchief to authentically dab at his face while the cameras rolled, now he had come up with the zaniest of ideas for the project’s #HighEndLowLife cover art.
“I could be naked, here in the pulpit, with the parental advisory [graphic] covering what I need covered. Can’t y’all see it?” He motioned to the stained windows behind him. “Aight,” one manager conceded, shaking his head. “You gon’ have to be quick about it though ‘cause this is crazy.”
This is RaRa: inspired, headstrong, raised in the church while being of the world. But these days, the rapper/producer is also one of the newest signees to T.I.’s Grand Hustle empire, traveling with the trap rap pioneer from stage to Apollo stage. He’s kicking it with Khaled during Grammy weekend and finally receiving widespread recognition for his production skills after adding his touch to Meek Mill’s “Regular.” But he’s still his grandmother’s RaRa of East Atlanta, perched beside her in videos where street cats shoot dice for food stamp cards. Rapping about the hardships of being a Black man in America with Killer Mike (“Frustrated Young Man”) and T.I. ("Black Man").
On his latest EP, the recently-released I Am What I Am, RaRa dabbles in the club feel, with songs like “Notice It,” nestled against others like the prayer-filled “Lawd” and “Dear Summer,” a tribute of sorts to desire and ambition. To be an artist is to be a number of things and though it’s taken a while, RaRa seems to have found his tribe without sacrificing a single piece of himself.
Up North, to be on “that ra-ra” means something. But your grandma gave you the nickname, right?
Yeah. From my real name. It fits me though because I am always on some ra-ra shit for real, but it’s just a name my grandma gave me. I really look at it as the Eye of Ra, the Sun God. Even being on some ra-ra shit still refers to the Eye of Ra. At the end of the day, it’s the Sun God, you make it shine.
Speak on the importance of the EP’s title.
The title is I Am What I Am and it’s really "what you see is what you get." I am what I am, what it is at that time, is what it is... Whatever mood or mode I’m in, it’s that, nothing more, nothing less. I just wanna be honest and transparent with everything I do. The EP is just a reflection on everything I bring to the table as a whole. Songs like “Lawd” show my train of thought, definitely that I’m a Christian and that I’m into the music deep, the insight of the game, that I care about people and just want everybody to win. And then “Ball,” that shows that I’m a fighter, a survivor, I came to play and to compete. Then “Notice It,” that would go in the club or on the radio or whatever, that I can have fun with records but still with lyrical content. Then “For the Money” with Tip shows that I can stand next to the greats in the game. And Tip being one of the greatest to ever do it... I just feel like in those seven songs [on the EP] I showed and showcased that I have whatever it takes to be one of the greats.
What are the two tracks that newcomers should check for on I Am...?
“Lawd” and “Ball” are two of the records that I feel describe me as an artist really and represent me as a person because I’m always into the organs and the church feel and realistic music. I’m just into being true to who you are as a person.
You have a family too. Are you thinking of your kids when you create?
My children are everything to me. The only thing to me really. I got a son and a daughter, what more can anyone ask for? My son loves me, to him I’m bigger than life. My daughter, she’s a girl so she wanna do girl shit like spend the money. But I like my lil’ pair. Individually, they’re two different people who inspire and motivate me. They are the motivation.
At your listening, you said that you want to “go down in the books.” Can you add to that?
Definitely. Since this shit started... With the Kilo [Ali]'s and the Dallas Austin's, the Dungeon Family, the Attic Crew, the Grand Hustle's, and the BME, for sure Luda’s team, and I just want my company to go down as adding to that. Like, Atlanta gotta keep the history going. I ain’t come through to make a few records and shine. Or make some money and get out this shit. I came to really put my stamp on the game and let people know where we come from and what we represent. To tell the Atlanta story as we see it.
Can you give details on how the Grand Hustle deal came about?
That happened through a bunch of people. One of my great, great friends is K.P. (Kawan Prather) who kinda started Tip. One of my big homies in the game who’s really my patna-patna and an OG and a mentor to me, Killer Mike, played a big part in putting it together. And my other patna I know from the streets named Doc, he put it together. It took a lot of people. Actually, being in the game, Grand Hustle was one of the first labels that ever tried to sign me, period. When I first started from day one. I just always felt like, in the beginning, since I’ve been around so long and people don’t really know, I started around the time Tip started. But I was younger [than him]. He was just getting to the point where he was getting his stuff really going, so I just figured, ‘Let me find something else to do...’ But I always felt like me and him being together would make a big impact. We got a lot of similarities when it comes to down to it. A lot of people think that I remind them of the same feel that he brought.
How is it to rap alongside one another? It sounds really natural for you both.
It is! And we just going back and forth. For him, he do it and everybody know he do it, but for me, being the underdog, coming in and people not really knowing but a lot of times when people look at Atlanta they aren’t thinking ‘lyrics.’ But I just wanted to let that be known that we doing that, fo’ sho. And picking up where the others left off at, like, let me pick the story up from here.
Who is RaRa?
Man, being real, I’m a father. I’m a survivor because I been through so much shit but I’m still here. When it comes to the music, man, I’m a lot of things in one. Some might say that I’m a person like Fab[olous] when it comes to my dressing. With production, I’m like Kanye West. When it comes to flows and what I bring to the table, kinda like a Tip. Beat selection, kinda like a [Rick] Ross... Just all the greats that I always study. I like the things that these individuals specialize in and are great at. I’m just a student of the game, applying what I learn to what I do and it makes me who I am. Dopeboy Ra.