Sound: Cinematic R&B and jazz If you like: Amy Winehouse, Tinashe, SZA Best track:Escapism
Rating: NNNN (out of 5) Why You Should Listen: This is Raye’s defiant and honest re-entry into the music industry. One of the most honest pop albums in years.
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The moment the first note of Raye’s My 21st Century Blues hits, you know you’re in for a show. The introduction sets the scene: a smoky room, a smooth piano, velvet curtains and the host for the night, presents to you the one, the only, Raye.
South London R&B singer Raye has featured on club anthems for over a decade. But she’s due a re-introduction. With songs that have over 500 million streams, you’d assume that Raye would already be fully in the limelight. That’s not exactly the case.
“I became a rent-a-verse,” she said to NME earlier this year, one that nobody seemed to pay attention to. The top-charting hits (You Don’t Know Me, BED or By Your Side) she’s been amassing since 2016 have always been swept aside as a feature, leaving standard-white-male-DJs such as Joel Corry or David Guetta, who produced the track, to take the credit.
Last year, she finally got fed up and announced she was leaving her record label, one that has been holding her debut album hostage for over five years. With My 21st Century Blues, the singer’s first and independently-released album, it’s time for her to take centre stage.
The album has a clear narrative arc, one that Raye has been waiting to share for years. Its first track, the orchestral Oscar Winning Tears feels ripped out of a musical, in the best way. Raye delivers powerful vocals accompanied by grandiose strings and percussion.
Hard Out Here, the first single off of the album, — and one in which she does not mince her words — has her rapping about the abuse she experienced from men in the music industry over thumping drums that remind the listeners that no matter what, Raye will “bounce back.”
Escapism, the TikTok hit that reached a well-deserved number one on the U.K. Top 40 charts, is another highlight. She delivers tongue-in-cheek lyrics about desperately needing a one-night stand that turns into a slurry haze, punctured by drugs and deceit. It’s a psychedelic rap song that takes your breath away.
While her record label might have tried to place her in a box, this album is defiant proof that there’s nothing she can’t do. Each song poignantly depicts her experiences with sexual assault, drug abuse and a toxic music industry, borrowing elements from blues, jazz and electronic music.
Black Mascara is an ode to her previous dance tracks, but with a much heavier subject matter: being spiked by a lover. Jazz-infused songs like Ice Cream Man and Mary Jane, wouldn’t be out of place on an Amy Winehouse record. And this is what makes Raye’s album so captivating — it’s telling a story, one that compels us to keep listening and hear it all play out.
Tracks like Environmental Anxiety and Body Dysmorphia lull, with monotone instrumentals and constant drum snares accompanied by Raye’s vague societal critiques. Even so, knowing just how long Raye has been waiting to speak her truth makes lyrics like “For this hourglass we all desire / I wear three corsets underneath” a little more excusable.
The album isn’t all downers, though. Raye is at her best when she’s delivering trap-infused, sultry tunes like Five Star Hotels and Flip A Switch, ones with seductive harmonies and braggadocious lyrics that hit even harder knowing all that she’s been through.
What makes this album so engaging is its versatility. Raye’s ability to rap, belt and harmonize prove that she’s been under-utilized in an industry that feels the need to confine people into boxes. Not anymore though. Raye tweeted she was “done being a polite popstar.” It’s proving to be working out for her.