It’s been said before, but once again – sometimes, TikTok really gets it right. London-based singer RAYE is just releasing her debut album now, but she’s been a force in the industry since she was signed to a major label as a teenager nearly a decade ago. Lending her songwriting credits to artists like David Guetta, Charli XCX and Beyonce, the label unfortunately held her own work back, leading to a falling out that finally sees My 21st Century Blues being released independently. It’s easy to see why she was so frustrated – most of RAYE’s co-written songs were big because she knows how to write a great, if somewhat formulaic pop melody. What we didn’t know is that she has the ambition to get experimental with just about everything surrounding it as well. A trained jazz singer, exciting elements of her past crop up from time to time amidst a blend of pop, soul and hip-hop that feels like the exact direction our genreless world is moving in. Adding her own unique voice, the project is coloured with exhilarating beat switches and a nice mix of both fun tracks and serious ones dotted with refreshingly blunt social commentary. RAYE, thankfully, has finally arrived, and the game should be on watch.
After an intro skit that feels like we’re being introduced to a performer at a jazz club, a trap beat drops overtop of the opening jazzy piano chords of “Oscar Winning Tears,” RAYE breezing through a cool and conversational triplet flow on top as she recounts the story of one of her many “irrelevant,” “1/10” romantic partners and learning to see through a performance worthy of a golden statuette. The chorus explodes with fuller instrumentation, but it’s still mixed well enough for us to hear every bit of RAYE’s striking vibrato on top – though the best vocal moment on the track is when everything cuts out and she ascends the scale in an a cappella harmony. It’s a powerful opener that asserts RAYE as someone who takes no nonsense, and that continues onto “Hard Out Here.” as she unleashes a series of speedy rap verses verbally setting her old label’s building on fire while hoping to dismantle a system biased against everything she represents. RAYE did the album’s photoshoot in front of the label building for a reason, and the song finds her singing about bouncing back and sticking her success in their faces. RAYE’s approach is endlessly surprising and full of free-flowing musicality – a moment where it would normally return to the chorus but instead finds her extending the same speedy flows in a more melodic zone stands out. Everything that’s given her the 21st century blues is addressed, as the track “Black Mascara.” was apparently inspired by a night when a man RAYE trusted spiked her drink. As operatic harmonies give way to a house beat that keeps building in intensity, the repetitive lyrics give the sense of her spiraling in a party as the reality of what happened sets in.
It’s echoing through every Gen-Z’s For You page at the moment, but “Escapism.” feels like one of those songs that’s too cool to be as big of a hit as it is. Teaming up with fellow pop futurist 070 Shake, the boom-bap beat over an orchestral backdrop, extravagant piano chords and siren synth in the back almost makes it sound like a leftover from Kanye’s maximalist opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – especially as RAYE attacks the verses with a blown-out vocal filter and fiery aggression. Putting on her most British accent as she pleads a doctor for anything that will make the feelings go away while trying to forget her heartbreak on a night out, it all builds up to a final beat-switch and rap verse to send it home. The track “Mary Jane.” calms things back down to put a spotlight on her vocals, mixed right up at the front with little more than a bluesy guitar riff and some tambourine hits to back her up as she dedicates a verse each to her mind-altering substances of choice. With some of the project’s best lyrics personifying her romance with each, RAYE proves that she could be a successful artist in just about any genre. After such a bluesy diversion, it’s appropriate that the next track is titled “The Thrill Is Gone.” Recorded live off the floor, it’s another moment that shows RAYE in full command of some pretty complex musicality, as big trumpet stabs and a syncopated guitar line back her up, shifting tempos along with her vocal lines up front. It’s impossible not to move around to this one, as some rasp creeps into RAYE’s vocals at the top of her range and the instruments are free to go off at the end – it’s a peppy and upbeat jam about a romantic spark dying.
The track “Ice Cream Man.” kicks off a run of RAYE going deep into some more serious topics, as she begins addressing a creepy producer in her early days and situations of assault that, as she says, turned her from a girl into the kind of woman who will no longer allow the trauma inflicted on her by men destroy her livelihood. One of the poppier songs here with some warm and tender vocals, the track is highly emotional – especially when she begins the second verse by running through the ages at which she was previously violated, three of them when she was underage. Speaking about rejecting the kind of world that made her feel like she had to blame herself for it, RAYE blends a great song with great commentary. She does it again on “Environmental Anxiety.,” which feels a little like a modern-day “We Didn’t Start The Fire” about how we got to the place where climate change is likely going to be our collective demise. Addressing everything from politics and social media to capitalism and war in a speedy flow over a breakbeat, it certainly gets overwhelming, but that’s the point. “Body Dysmorphia.” isn’t quite as successful musically, with a bit of a disjointed chorus, but RAYE once again speaks poignantly on an important issue as she gives us some vivid imagery of taking a pair of scissors to herself, ending the track with some recordings of children talking about what they’d physically change about themselves.
In between all of these is “Flip A Switch.,” which is essentially just RAYE’s attempt at a modern trap banger. With some icy synths, melodic flows and nice harmonies, she sings about searching for new energy and heading out in the immediate aftermath of hitting the block button on a “very silly man.” Another track that showcases her hip-hop instincts is “Five Star Hotels.,” which comes complete with another fun trap beat and DJ scratches. There’s something intoxicating about the way she says “Mauritius,” while Mahalia re-energizes the track with a new flow on the bridge. “Worth It.” finds RAYE sounding like a 1940s jazz singer on the muted intro before dropping into a bassline-heavy dreamy funk-pop zone. Referring to it as the happiest song on the album – and it certainly puts a smile on my face – RAYE finally finds a romance that makes her hope for the best as she spends some quality time together in the light of the rising sun. Things fade out with “Buss It Down.,” a final soulful piano ballad reminding us to dance when we can and “prioritize who [we] grind for.”
If the label heard these tracks and truly felt like holding them back was the best option, then things are worse than we think. I’m ecstatic that it seems everything has come together at the right time to make RAYE the rising star that she deserves to be, and I can’t wait for whatever comes next – hopefully, a little quicker this time.
Favourite Tracks: Escapism., Worth It., The Thrill Is Gone., Hard Out Here., Ice Cream Man.
Least Favourite Track: Body Dysmorphia.