My favorite meme to come out of the pandemic so far is “Every writer before 2020: ‘If I only had some time, I could write the Great American Novel.’ Every writer in 2020: ‘Maybe I can teach my cat to pee in the toilet.’”
It’s funny and true: Most artists of all types who suddenly found themselves with all kinds of extra time on their hands beginning in March also found their motivation to suddenly produce great works hampered by little things like existential angst and very-not-existential-but-actually-quite-real-because-the-new-scary-virus-is-really-really-scary angst.
To sum up: Absolutely no art is going to come out of this pandemic except Chris Rene music. Lots and lots of Chris Rene music. Because while we’ve all been figuring out how to make our pets pee in the toilet, the Santa Cruz R&B and hip-hop singer-songwriter—most famous for his 2012 hit “Young Homie” and repping us in the first season of the U.S. version of The X Factor (in which he finished third)—has been on a creative tear of massive proportions.
“The pandemic happened, and we’re stuck in the house, and I’m thinking the world’s gonna end,” Rene says. “And I’m like, ‘You know what? I should probably get all this music out that I started writing when I was 15. If it could be the end, guess what—I gotta have my music out there before that happens.”
The result? This week, he drops his new album 2020, which he recorded, mixed and produced himself at his home during the pandemic. But that’s only the beginning.
“I’m actually working on two more albums,” he says. “One unplugged album, and then another dope, dope album. Two more albums, plus five new singles. I’m working on all that right now. I’m definitely going to get another album out this year, and then 2021 is going to be a bunch of singles. And I’m getting ready to work with some guys to do some music videos.”
To accomplish all this, he’s been working five hours a day, every day on his music. “I’m not messing around,” he says, and he isn’t kidding.
This is all the more impressive given that Rene never properly followed up the 2012 major-label debut I’m Right Here that he released in the wake of being discovered by Simon Cowell and company on The X Factor. The reasons why have been a mystery to many fans, especially after the success of “Young Homie” and the EP’s second single “Trouble.”
Some of the answers lie in “Money,” a song on the new album. “It’s about when I first got famous—the old life just being a normal person, and then the new life. Going from nothing to something so quick,” Rene says. “It talks about how the fame blinded me, and I went off course. I had the passion for the music, but the authenticity wasn’t there. It became a popularity thing, which is the opposite of what I wanted for myself. I explain what it was like being in the spotlight, and also being in recovery.”
It wasn’t easy to face some of the hard truths he came to grips with about that time.
“It took me quite some time to finish that song,” he admits. “It’s an emotional song, it’s a triumphant song, and it’s an important reminder for me to remember what it’s all about. Without that, I’m not a fan of myself.”
But now, once again, he is. So are a lot of other people, and he’s excited for them to hear the new album—though when he first thought of titling it 2020, he had no idea what the implications would be. He ultimately ended up changing some of the songs he’d already written to better suit the times.
“I changed lyrics to fit with the current situation. On the song called ‘Bring It Back,’ it used to be ‘We rockin’ the club like this, like that.’ I took the club out, and now it’s, ‘We rockin’ the house like this, like that.’ Little things like that I just put in because that’s where we’re all at,” Rene says.
When he plays his album release show on May 8, however, he’ll be a little ahead of the curve, no pun intended. Instead of livestreaming from his home (which he has been doing daily in the run-up to his album release) he’ll actually perform from the stage of Felton Music Hall, in a show organized by Event Santa Cruz. There won’t be an audience in the club, of course, but it still represents something much larger to those of us who miss live music—including Rene himself.
“It’s what I’m meant to do. Being on that stage is one of the best feelings ever, even if there ain’t nobody there,” he says.
Aside from the intangible benefits a show like this provides its audience—like, for instance, hope—there are some practical ones, too.
“There’s a lot more space. My three year old’s not running around, and the dogs aren’t running around,” says Rene. “It’s going to be trippy, but it’s going to feel like everyone’s there, even though no one’s there.”
As part of its “Save Our Music” series throughout the month of May, Event Santa Cruz will present the Facebook Live performance of Chris Rene from the stage of Felton Music Hall on May 8 beginning at 7pm. To RSVP, go to eventsantacruz.com.