When Rex Orange County entered the mainstream music scene five years ago, he was dubbed music’s “new favorite sad boy.” But in his latest album, a change from his defeatist music, the bedroom pop artist does the unexpected: He acknowledges his insecurities and the negative judgment that his music may be subject to but finds the courage to ask, Who Cares?
While the title may seem fatalistic, Rex (Alex O’Connor) puts a cheerful twist on the question with his fourth album. It’s easy to be bogged down by others’ opinions, but Rex casts them aside to recognize that he does, in fact, know who cares about him. He traverses feelings of self-doubt and insecurity in a lighthearted way, giving the album an upbeat and empowering tone. Meanwhile, he explores the promise of a budding relationship, lending a sense of promise for a brighter future.
Emotional vulnerability backed by a unique combination of traditional and synthy instrumentation is distinctively Rex’s style, but with an increased emphasis on strings and vocals, Who Cares? amplifies his musical strengths of blending unexpected sounds. From the encouraging words of the opening track and lead single, “Keep It Up,” to the uncertainty of “7 AM,” Rex questions the ability to be loved, or even relevant, to those around you. By the titular ending track, Rex is determined to not let his own fears stand in the way of happiness, and expresses that his loved ones will help along the way.
The emphasis on self-improvement and a disregard of external opinions contrasts with Rex’s previous album, Pony, which focused on devotion to a relationship. Though he also explores romance on Who Cares?, it is in a much more playful way as he describes being head over heels for his crush.
The overwhelmingly triumphant tone of Who Cares? reflects a pandemic-driven resolve to write music as if no one else would hear it. “That kind of sparked the experimentation and the feeling of ‘who cares?’” Rex told Dazed. “Basically, how would my music sound if I didn’t think about it coming out?” For listeners who may also experience aimlessness or fear of judgment emerging from the pandemic, Rex is leading by example in overcoming these feelings.
In almost every song, Rex battles people-pleasing instincts. “Keep It Up” opens the album with swelling strings until the drums and lyrics pick up the pace: “Every time I open my mouth / I have regrets in my mind / Every time.” Although lyrically pessimistic as he explores feelings of hopelessness and depression, the upbeat rhythm and airy vocal performance lend humor to the track, almost making light of his insecurities. By the chorus, the strings share the spotlight with Rex’s vocals to remind listeners, “You’re only holding out for what you want / You no longer owe the strangers.” Vagueness aside, Rex sounds uncharacteristically confident in his newfound ability to prioritize his own desires—musically and personally.
Rex takes after his friend and mentor Tyler, the Creator with his “ignore the haters” attitude. The Grammy-winning rapper is the only feature on Who Cares? In 2017, when Rex only had 500 followers on SoundCloud, Tyler flew him into Los Angeles to be featured on his album Flower Boy. Their 2017 collaboration “Boredom,” true to both artists’ styles, blends strings and guitar with distorted synth. Focused on feelings of loneliness and, you guessed it, boredom, it was also a preview of their latest collaboration, “Open a Window,” the second track and third single from Who Cares?
“I was having a tough time making music freely, and [Tyler] gave me a lot of great advice,” Rex told Vulture. “It’s amazing that we have a relationship.”
Between the deep bass and soft, synthesized melodies, Tyler’s influence is quickly recognizable. On “Open a Window,” the two blend styles seamlessly. Raspy vocals and sound distortion help make it a standout track on Who Cares? The track is a bit more lighthearted than most of Tyler’s music, but he adds his own edge as the two express the claustrophobia created by the weighty expectations of others. Though his verse is maybe shorter than desired, Tyler gets his frustration across with his characteristic play on words: “Open door, but you can’t, try to run, but you pant / Out of breath, you can’t vent, ’cause the AC actin’ up.”
In a thematic shift from songs rejecting criticism, like “Open a Window” and “Worth It,” many of the album’s highlights are Rex’s giddy, lovestruck moments trying to show a girl how much he likes her—a feeling that anyone who’s had a crush knows all too well. In these songs, his vocals are heartfelt, and the strings swell alongside his emotions.
On “One in a Million,” he takes joy in the simple pleasures of being around his girl. On the next track, “If You Want It,” he picks up the pace and creates a fun and joyful tone, leaving the door open for his crush to walk through: “I’m acting a fool, come back and just give me a call / I can’t wait at all, let me be your boy / If you want it.” Rex again uses a play on words in “The Shade”—he’d do anything to make his significant other happy, like closing the blinds so she can sleep or painting the walls with different shades of color.
Rex’s carefree outlook also shaped his writing process with the help of longtime collaborator Benny Sings, who is featured on Rex’s 2017 hit “Loving Is Easy.” The two produced Who Cares? in two weeks while Rex was visiting the Dutch artist in Amsterdam—a stark contrast to the year-and-a-half long production of Pony. Benny, a prolific artist, writes four or five songs a day—a creative process that encouraged Rex to just let his music flow without concern for the final product.
Rex told Dazed, “I think it took like three albums and four or five years of doing this to finally be like, I’ve earned the right to say whatever [I want], and not have to explain myself, and just feel a little bit freer in music and in real life as well.”
Feelings of pointlessness or isolation generated during the pandemic aren’t unique to “sad-boy” Rex alone, but he certainly harnessed them in a positive way. It was that blasé attitude that allowed him to follow his instincts and ultimately find his purpose: prioritizing those who care.
Voice’s Choices: Open a Window, The Shade, Keep It Up