London-based artist RAYE, born Rachel Agatha Keen, has spent the past nine years in a pop prison by her ex-label Polydor Records. But — to the great fortune of audiences everywhere — the extremely engaging, charming and cheeky singer-songwriter has recently broken her chains off, independently releasing her debut album “My 21st Century Blues.”
In her imprisonment that began with a four-record deal initiated by Polydor when RAYE was only 17, she was prevented from releasing full-length projects and was persistently stuck lending her vocals and writing skills to EDM producers such as David Guetta and Regard. However, the reality is that RAYE deserves her artistic ability to be utilized far past the recordings played on the monitors of the clubs where most people have only heard her. RAYE proves this point on “My 21st Century Blues,” crafting one of the most avant-garde yet audibly addicting pop albums to be released in recent years.
The first track of “My 21st Century Blues” opens with the sounds of an American jazz club: a slurring piano, glasses clinking together and a theatrical voice reminiscent of Taye Diggs in “Chicago” announcing “a very special guest for you tonight coming on / All the way from London, England.”
After RAYE is introduced, the tiny audience whistles and applauds and then listeners are guided into the second track, “Oscar Winning Tears.” The track begins with a more intimate-sounding message from the singer, “Hello, it’s RAYE here / Please get nice and comfortable and lock your phones / Because the story is about to begin.” RAYE articulates this message with her prim and petite U.K. accent. The track is nothing too immersive or remarkable for an opening track, but the silliness and cinematic employment of the opening messages add to the theme of RAYE beginning her own tale. “Oscar Winning Tears.” is the perfect song to show off some of RAYE’s best abilities.
One of these abilities is RAYE’s quirky sense of humor and how she uses it to make her songs showcase more of her personality, assisting in the intimacy of the lyrics and topics drawn on in the album. “Hard Out Here.” is a song on the album that expresses the singer’s anger toward Polydor Records as she sings, “All the white men CEOs, fuck your privilege / Get your pink chubby hands of my mouth, fuck you think this is?”
RAYE is at her best when she is herself, and her strategically comical moments assist greatly in this. In lieu, flaws take shape when the album fails to keep this originality. It is not surprising that artists have to rely on certain trends to stay relevant, especially on the enormously popular app TikTok — which has unfortunately become a brand synonymous with the music industry. The singer-songwriter falls into this trope in the immensely honest “Ice Cream Man.” The singer takes away from the heartbreaking story of an abusive experience by employing the modern internet colloquialism of how it “was livin’ in me rent-free.” In “The Thrill Is Gone.” RAYE employs the exasperating, immature trend of blaming someone’s personality on their zodiac sun, moon and rising. These attempts, though not used too repeatedly, stick out in the songwriting, adding a sense of doubt to RAYE’s lyrics.
However, one aspect of “My 21st Century Blues” that is undoubtedly special and original is the cohesion between the production and RAYE’s vocals and melodies on the album. The project is executive produced by 25-year-old Mike Sabath, who (to this date) has outshone any of his past work by working with RAYE. The two have coined a particular sound that promises an exciting future for the artist’s music and potential.
The cacophonous mesh of R&B, bawdy pop, dancehall, jazz and dimmed electronic never gets boring and can be seen at its best on “Escapism.” — the clear winner of “My 21st Century Blues.” The track is dark, intense, incredibly danceable and has a cinematic quality that takes the listener on a sonic rollercoaster ride of feelings and sounds. Sabath’s production compliments RAYE’s lyrical flow, another of her most iconic and addicting qualities. Addicting is the keyword here. RAYE’s phrasing rolls off the tongue so well that you can’t help but listen again, learn the words and sing it yourself.
In “Escapism.” RAYE sings, “Just a heart broke bitch, high heels six inch / In the back of the nightclub, sippin’ champagne / I don’t trust any of these bitches I’m with / In the back of the taxi sniffin’ cocaine / Drunk calls, drunk texts, drunk tears, drunk sex / I was lookin’ for a man who was on the same page / Now it’s back to the intro, back to the bar / To the Bentley, to the hotel, to my old ways.”
Another highlight of the album includes the EDM-heavy “Black Mascara.” which invokes familiarity from RAYE’s trapped past but succeeds in quality far more. “Once you see my black mascara / Run from you into my mama’s hands / You selfish man / You’d understand (understand what you) / Once you see my slick eyeliner / Blend into my black designer bags under my eyes / Oh, how’d you try to understand?” RAYE sings in her strong accent that is accompanied by an auto-tuned harmony, assisting in the flow and stammered feel of the lyrics.
Overall, pop fans everywhere can find a liking in the creativity and catchiness RAYE accomplishes in her debut album, “My 21st Century Blues.” The project’s flaws may have some listeners turning a deaf ear, yet the cohesive and original sound projected by RAYE makes the album worth a listen and solidifies it as one of the better pop efforts in recent history. RAYE has the voice and presence that can fill arenas and headline stages at festivals, and it is exciting to feel that that is where she is undoubtedly heading.