RAYE most certainly had a lot hanging under her belt far before the release of her debut album, My 21st Century Blues. Four-times BRIT nominated and over 3 billion streams of her music, RAYE has written for some of the biggest artists listened to worldwide such as John Legend, David Guetta, Diplo, and Beyoncé in the past. Signing a contract with music label Polydor at age 17 in 2014, which currently works with other music artists like Billie Elish, Olivia Rodrigo, and Kendrick Lamar, RAYE had a promising future ahead of her on paper.
While these accomplishments seem like great results for a musician’s career, a tweet from RAYE in 2021 revealed the truth of her predicament under her record deal. Detailing ways that she had been treated as an artist under the label for several years, RAYE had fought to prove her skillset through the release of several EPs while collaborating with other musicians as a songwriter or vocalist, which led to no avail.
I have been on a 4 ALBUM RECORD DEAL since 2014 !!! And haven’t been allowed to put out one album. ALL I CARE ABOUT is the music. Im sick of being slept on and I’m sick of being in pain about it this is not business to me this so personal
— RAYE (@raye) June 29, 2021
Finally breaking free of the reins of her label due to this viral tweet, RAYE now works as an independent artist while also speaking out against the corruption present in the music industry that she has witnessed so far. Her debut album, My 21st Century Blues, is a powerful amalgamation of vulnerable stories of misogyny, addiction, and self-growth—in other words, a rebirth for RAYE as an artist wishing to get her story through unfiltered.
The album begins with a male voice introducing RAYE and her producer Mike Sabath, providing imagery that you are an audience member listening to RAYE’s performance live. This theme is reiterated through several other tracks scattered throughout the album, which can be viewed as a way for RAYE to reassert her independence on her music by constantly acknowledging the audience. Although, the lyrics itself serve as another method for RAYE to waste no time on describing her own experience; the second track “Oscar Winning Tears” describes a man spiking her drink and the journey she had to undergo afterwards. The words seem to spill out of her chest with how fast the lyrics flow up to the chorus, providing an effect similar to a bubble being popped. The track then slows down to match a ballad-like feel that allows RAYE to belt out emotions that audience members can absorb.
Another track that punctures another vulnerable story worth noting upfront is “Ice Cream Man,” which recounts her experience with sexual violence. In a January interview for Cosmopolitan, RAYE had stated that “Music is my way of being loud and owning the narrative,” and this track serves as a prime example of RAYE’s admirable growth from her past. Prior to the entrance of instrumental, her voice is the only thing that is heard at the start of this song, mimicking the sound of a heart monitor before describing her journey into femininity from adolescence and adulthood. This sound effect eventually fades as RAYE re-proclaims her strength from this moment. A key highlight to note for listeners is that the instrumental use in this song is bare, perhaps purposely done to let RAYE’s voice shine throughout the track.
The hard-hitting topics in RAYE’s album don’t stop there. Other introspective tracks that highlight RAYE’s lyrical skills are “Body Dysmorphia” and “Environmental Anxiety,” which both describe the ways we can be weighed down in life, ranging from our personal lives to global issues. The use of a vocal synthesizer to provide a distorted effect and fast-paced tempo in these tracks resembles the anxiety many of us feel about these topics pressed in between the midst of our daily lives—almost impossible to avert our attention towards without casting other concerns out the window. RAYE makes a valiant effort to utilize her platform as one that is both relatable in terms of the insecurities that we share but also urges that we can do more as a society.
RAYE slides in the biggest hit of her album, “Escapism,” right in the middle. This single, in collaboration with 070 Shake, became RAYE’s first UK No. 1 and Billboard Hot 100 entry at the start of this year, but its sped-up version also went viral on TikTok. The use of more R&B styles provides a stark difference to the pop feel that is spread out in other songs in the album. RAYE’s unique story-telling skills in this track paints the picture of an individual snarling about their desire to seek out drugs and a method of revenge from her ex. The drums drive the power of the pace in this piece and provide an interesting contrast to the RAYE’s vocals. It is most especially prominent in the chorus segment, which served as the main propeller for her song becoming viral.
My personal favorites, “The Thrill is Gone” and “Worth It,” demonstrate her versatility in other genres. RAYE’s velvet voice combined with a funky guitar and brass provides a groovy style that is head-bobbing and a fun listen. However, “Buss It Down” was a reminder that the album lacked connection between its tracks, and while RAYE uses it to her advantage in songs placed earlier in the track list, I felt like “Buss It Down” was a lackluster conclusion piece glued with trendy phrases and an assisting vocal chorus to dilute its tame feel. If the album were to snip out these portions, the presentation would have been more appealing in its attempts to cover a large range of topics.
As a casual listener of RAYE’s works for the past several years, her debut album presents a more intimate picture of her career that will cause me to be a more engaged fan. Her song writing abilities alone speaks for the passion she has for music and its abilities to tell more through repeated listens. Giving this album a try is a high recommendation for me, because it seems to be a mere teaser for what RAYE may have in store for us in years to come.