Four months after nailing his X Factor audition with a show-stopping performance of the self-penned “Young Homie,” Chris Rene is releasing his fiercely personal anthem as a single. Newly signed to Epic Records, the Santa Cruz-based rapper/singer/songwriter/musician came in third place on The X Factor and enamored audiences with his breadth of talent and then-recent triumph in overcoming addiction. Masterfully capturing Rene’s struggles with substance abuse and journey to recovery, the revamped “Young Homie” now boasts a fatter beat and smoother groove perfectly suited to Rene’s inspired fusion of hip-hop and soul-pop.
To create the intensely infectious midtempo track, Rene joined forces with J.R. Rotem (Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross). In laying down his redemptive story of surviving addiction and “turning negatives to positives,” Rene swings from soulful singing to rapping, revealing his remarkably dexterous flow. Dynamic yet tender, “Young Homie” also deftly flaunts Rene’s elegant piano-playing and balances the throbbing beat with soaring synth effects.
“The song’s about learning how to be a grown-up,” says Rene, who was working as a trash collector and only ten-weeks sober when he performed “Young Homie” at his X-Factor audition. “When you’re young, you feel like there’s no limit, no consequences to your actions. So it’s me talking to my younger self and to all the young brothers out there, telling them that life’s too beautiful to live like that.” But despite the weightiness of that message, Rene never comes off preachy or heavy-handed in “Young Homie.” From the high-reaching vocals in the song’s intro to the old-school vinyl crackle and turntable-scratch of its final seconds, “Young Homie” retains a breezy sweetness that’s a testament to Rene’s lyrical flair and long-cultivated pop sensibility.
Rene started writing songs at age 12, the same year he picked up a guitar for the first time. “I took one guitar lesson and learned the pentatonic scale, but since we didn’t have money for lessons after that, I just messed around and learned how to play on my own,” he says. Around that time, Rene also taught himself to play piano. “At first my hands were just going all over the place,” he recalls. “So I said to the piano, ‘I don’t understand you, but someday we’re gonna be best friends.’ I got so frustrated, I just eventually just started figuring it all out.” That year, Rene formed a punk band that included his brother Mike on drums. Called Diversion, the band featured Rene on guitar and vocals and ended up releasing a self-titled album in 2000.
According to Rene, his family played a major role in his musical savvy. His grandfather Leon Rene was a record-label owner and songwriter whose compositions include “Rockin’ Robin” (recorded by Michael Jackson) and “When It’s Sleepy Time Down South” (recorded by Louis Armstrong). In addition, Rene’s father was a songwriter and jazz pianist, while his siblings include Gina Rene (a singer featured on the Mean Girls and Step Up soundtracks) and Gabriel Rene (a record producer). “Music’s in my blood and it was all around me when I was growing up—I soaked it up like a sponge,” Rene says. Over the years, he built on that musical background by exploring a dizzying range of musical genres. “I’ve been influenced by every kind of music you can think of, from Mozart to Led Zeppelin to Outkast,” he says. “I love Al Green, I love punk rock—just anything that’s got that crazy passion.”
But while Rene’s uncommon combination of pedigree, talent, ambition, and appetite seemed ready to propel him into musical stardom, his struggles with drugs and alcohol interfered. “I started smoking weed when I was 12, and by 15 I was smoking every day,” he says. “When I was 17 or 18, I started doing cocaine and crank—first it was once a week, then it was three times a week, then it was every couple of hours.” After a few stints in jail and rehab, Rene stayed clean for three years but then resumed drinking and smoking. “My mind told me, ‘You got a car, a home, a kid. You can drink like normal people. You can smoke weed.’ But pretty soon I started doing meth, and it all went downhill fast.” Last year, Rene wrapped his car under a tree in an accident that nearly killed his longtime girlfriend (also the mother of his son Ryan).
Rene entered Janus Rehabilitation Center in Santa Cruz immediately after leaving the hospital. Soon after he finished up the 30-day program, Rene’s sister approached him about auditioning for X-Factor. “For a long time I thought shows like that weren’t really for me—I had this idea like, ‘If I’m gonna come up, I’m gonna come up on my own,’” he says. “But something was telling me that the time was right for this.” What’s more, Rene’s time in rehab had instilled him with a new sense of purpose and fearlessness. “No matter what happened, I knew it was gonna be good,” he says. “I had just almost wasted my whole life, so even if I got up there and L.A. [Reid] and Simon [Cowell] ended up throwing water balloons at me, it would have been a privilege.”
For Rene, making the bold choice to perform an original song at The X Factor audition was a no-brainer. “I wrote that song when I’d had three years clean, and it was my way of telling everyone what’s up,” he says. “It’s like, ‘There you go, world. Judge me, love me, push me, hug me. I’m just gonna be myself.’” Still, Rene found himself floored by The X Factor audience’s ecstatic reaction and by the outpouring of support from the judges (particularly Reid, who stated that “I’ve worked with some of the greatest hip-hop artists, from Jay-Z to Kanye West, and all of my boys, they would be proud of me today to tell you that you are the truth”). “When L.A. said that, it blew me away beyond belief,” says Rene. “He’s been in this business a long time, and he’s got a really strong sense of what’s good and what’s great.”
To that end, signing with Epic Records and furthering his relationship with Reid feels like a “blessing,” according to Rene. “It means so much to me that L.A. believes in me enough to sign me and get me into the studio,” he adds. Looking back to less than a year ago, Rene notes that his life has been radically transformed for the better. “I’m out here in Los Angeles, working with amazing producers and writers, making genuine music that makes people feel good,” he says. “It’s a total 180 from where I came from.”