Jordan Rakei is known to millions as a master producer, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and DIY innovator. By the time he turned 30, the New Zealand-born, Australia-raised artist already had a string of critically acclaimed albums to his name; everyone from GRAMMY winners and chart-toppers to Mercury Prize nominees were clamouring to work with him. Now he’s poised to reintroduce himself yet again, as a man whose voice is capable of stirring the soul – bringing those deep-buried feelings right to the surface.
The Loop, Rakei’s fifth album, marks his recent signing to Decca (and Verve Forecast in the US) – a new career chapter that coincides with a number of profound changes in his personal life. This is an extraordinary record, not least for its sheer, breathtaking ambition. Along with his typically bold production style are spectacular orchestral arrangements and haunting choirs, hypnotic beats and an Odyssean-style narrative that charts a course through times of darkness and hope.
“On this album, I wanted to get back to why I fell in love with music in the first place,” Rakei explains. “All the artists I grew up listening to – Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, Curtis Mayfield, D’Angelo – I found myself listening to again without that analytical producer side. And I kept that same approach when I started writing new music. No judgement, but also a lot of ambition and desire to make these grand-sounding arrangements.” Fans and critics will note how Rakei has stepped completely away from the DIY sound he was once known for, and still loves: “I didn’t want this music to sound like it was made in a bedroom.”
Indeed, there’s no mistaking the huge space Rakei has given himself to work with for The Loop, recorded at RAK Studios, self-produced, and mixed by Ben Baptie. Rakei began working on early incarnations of these songs upon learning he would play London’s historic Royal Albert Hall in 2024. And what better song to herald this announcement than the lead single ‘Flowers’, a love song dedicated to Rakei’s wife. “It’s an inside joke that I’d somehow never written an ‘official’ love song for her, and we’ve been together for eight years,” he says. “Before, I’d been in cynical mode and tended to hide behind metaphors. Now I’m trying to embrace simpler sentiment, and to be more vulnerable.”
‘Flowers’ opens on hip-hop percussion and Rakei’s low, resonant tones: “When I looked into your eyes for the first time, I had seen the better half of me.” Gradually, the track comes into full bloom, first with subtle licks of electric guitar, then with a shock of colour painted by bright, swooning violins and the rich, dignified glide of the cello. It’s a magnificent opener that sets the scene for the rest of The Loop, where Rakei gives himself the freedom to express his emotions in a way that is utterly sincere.
Rest assured, though, Rakei still knows how to have fun. Songs like ‘Trust’ thrive on deep, funky bass grooves, noodling brass and complex, jazz-influenced rhythms. “With this one, I was focused more on the feeling I wanted to convey, rather than a specific lyric,” he says. “I’ve often felt like there’s an element of performance to my personality – I believe we’re only our true selves when we’re alone. So ‘Trust’ is about trying to embrace your true self more, and performing less, trusting that being the ‘real you’ is the right thing.”
He switches up the mood on ‘Amends’, a magnificent work redolent of French visionary Woodkid. Opening a capella over gospel handclaps, Rakei weaves in strings that dart and swoop between blasts of trumpet, which later give way to an interlude of eerie bloops and swirls of synths. “However it goes, however they leave, Do they deserve to hold onto a part of me?” he questions.
“I’d had friendships or business partnerships that went astray, and when those people walk out of your life again, there’s a part of you that just dies,” he says of the lyrics. “‘Amends’ is about surrendering to that feeling, both good and bad, and trying to make peace with the impermanence of life.”
This is by far Rakei’s most cohesive work to date, following previous releases that have demonstrated his natural curiosity in exploring new sounds. Born in New Zealand then raised in the bustling city of Brisbane, Australia, he’d already released his first two EPs by the time he graduated from university, aged 21. “It was a very explorative time for me, where things felt carefree and I was able to push the boundaries of what I’d learnt so far,” he recalls. This attitude explains the eclectic nature of his debut album, the self-released Cloak, which caught the attention of tastemakers around Europe and the UK.
Freshly signed to the UK’s independent label Ninja Tune, Rakei settled in London and proceeded to make a name for himself in its collaborative DIY soul-electronic scene, at the same time unveiling his dance music alter-ego, Dan Kye. But he was keen not to be pigeonholed, and so his second album, Wallflower, received glowing praise from publications including The Line of Best Fit, who noted the record’s evocative, stripped-back acoustic instrumentation and wide-ranging influences. The focal point, critics noted, was Rakei’s “boundless voice”, reflecting the cold and the isolation he experienced in his first year in a strange city.
“That record for me was actually really important, because it broke me out of this box I’d been put in,” Rakei says. “I was quite conscious of not just being this ‘soul artist’.” His risk paid off, and Wallflower was shortlisted for Best Album at the 2017 Australian Music Prize.
By this point, Rakei had established a solid fanbase and was touring regularly, both as a headline act and as the lead support for major artists such as Bonobo. Convinced he needed more dynamism in these live shows, he began working on what would become his third album, 2019’s Origin.
“In a way this was me getting back to my roots with a more electronic influence,” he says. Working around London, he produced a moving commentary on the impact technology has on our lives, described by PopMatters as a “neo-soul masterclass”. The record also caught the attention of tastemakers at national publications including The Guardian, who praised Origin for being “full of a rich, cinematic musicality that [is] poppier, sparklier and more ambitious…”
Around this time, Rakei had been releasing a consistent stream of fruitful collaborations with close friends, including Mercury Prize-shortlisted hip-hop artist Loyle Carner, and fellow producer and multi-instrumentalist Tom Misch. With Carner, he released the poignant lead single ‘Ottolenghi’, which marked the first new music from the rapper in 18 months. It was hailed as a “low-key triumph” by Clash and named track of the week by The Guardian, who described it as “lovely” and “heartfelt”.
“The great thing by this stage was, while my albums were coming out, I also had all these features I was doing in between,” Rakei says. “It was a brilliant way to stay involved in that scene, while having the freedom to be more experimental with my own music.” In another pivotal career moment, Rakei was invited by NPR to perform on the network’s renowned Tiny Desk series – one of the last in-house episodes filmed just before the pandemic hit.
“That was such an amazing moment and a massive life goal ticked off,” he grins, “especially when I saw so many comments from viewers who hadn’t realised I could play the keyboard, or sing the way I do.” The episode made Rakei known to a bigger fanbase as a true multi-instrumentalist, racking up millions of views along the way.
What We Call Life, Rakei’s last album released on Ninja Tune, coincided with his work producing tracks for Carner’s third album, Hugo, which marked his second Mercury Prize nomination, along with Misch and emerging soul star Olivia Dean. With his own record, he achieved some of his most glowing reviews to date, but is aware that his boundary-pushing sound split opinion among fans. “But I felt OK with that, because I needed my music to mirror the headspace I was in at the time,” he says. “I made a record I loved and still feel proud of to this day. And I can still say with certainty that I’ve never made the same album twice.”
Which remains true to this day. Inspired by a Bill Withers documentary, in which his hero ignored the contempt of his peers for daring to reach higher, Rakei set about assembling a crack team of musicians to fulfil his own ambitions for The Loop. “Withers said it was his goal to be successful, even as people accused him of selling out,” he says. “I think it’s weird that people had (and still have) such a problem with wanting to be heard by as many fans as possible.”
You hear the gospel and soul influences throughout the record, but perhaps most on the groove-laden ‘Freedom’. It’s steeped in drama, thrilling with the choir’s abrupt cry of “Freedom!” and the skittering hi-hat. “To me, freedom is the absence of dread or sadness, and the ability to embrace happiness in life,” Rakei explains of the track’s theme. The propulsive energy in the song’s rhythm urges us onwards, reminding us that we have the power to enact change in our own lives.
In keeping with his love of albums that keep the listener on their toes, Rakei chops and changes the mood with songs such as ‘Royal’. It was written around the time his therapist began encouraging him to embrace feelings of anger, rather than internalising them. “That’s what ‘Royal’ is in a way,” he says, “acknowledging the scenarios where I didn’t voice how I was really feeling”. Amid the pop bounce of eighties-style keys, he sings in his signature low, mellifluous tones, finding hope on the chorus: “I still believe.”
Since the release of What We Call Life, Rakei became a father for the first time, which he credits for the reverential quality you hear in his singing style. “The album title refers to that cycle of being a child, having children, and the relationship of being your parents’ child,” he says. ‘Hopes and Dreams’ was written in the months after his son’s birth, and has all the timeless romance of a classic from the Great American Songbook. The lush string arrangement helps weave the narrative together, while Rakei’s voice is velvety with tenderness and love.
“It’s a love song,” he says simply. “It was a very cathartic experience to write it – in a way it was something of a breakthrough, because it was the moment I truly felt capable of expressing those feelings of love with zero cynicism.”
‘Learning’, one of Rakei’s most profound songs to date, is a reflection on his place in the world, and his responsibilities as a father, husband, human being. “Bringing my son into the world, I’m conscious that there’s a lot I need to teach him,” he says. “But also, how much I still have to learn, and how we’re constantly in this state of learning.” The track is a masterclass in unhurried, erudite composing; listeners will immediately envisage what a spectacular live performance this will make for. “I’ve had these ambitions for my music since I was very young,” Rakei says. “Now I’ve actually been able to make them happen.”