REVIEW: RAYE – My 21st Century Blues

The context of the release of My 21st Century Blues is something that’s hard to get around mentioning in a review of the album. Take a quick look at RAYE’s Wikipeda page and the phrase ‘Raye was featured on…’ appears more often than you’d expect for a songwriter and artist who spent the best part of a decade signed to a major label. A discography of platinum hit after platinum hit and yet no album ever saw the light of day. ‘Mini-Album’ Euphoric Sad Songs acted more like a playlist of recent singles, while I thought it was a great set of pop leaning dance tracks, we’ve never got to see RAYE as an artist on any of her projects. It wasn’t until a few years ago and a public calling out of a label that wouldn’t allow her to release an album at all, supposedly waiting for ‘something to happen on the socials’, that RAYE was finally able to break out as an independent artist.

Skip ahead to this year and RAYE has never been more in demand, proof that songs don’t become big on Tik Tok because major labels want them to, ‘Escapism’ became one of the biggest hits of the last few months thanks to it being a genuinely exciting track. It’s an idea that’s helpful to remember while going into My 21st Century Blues, an album full of songs that are so clearly not chasing a specific trend, or engineered for the Spotify algorithm that it’s inevitable that they’ll become a blueprint for others in the next few years.

From the opening Jazz bar introduction it feels like a true debut album. Whatever came before is basically irrelevant, whatever genre RAYE may have seemed to be in before isn’t important as this album does its best to pull from many influences to create a genuinely new sound for its creator. ‘Hello it’s Raye here, Please get nice and comfortable and lock your phones, because the story is about to begin’ kicks off ‘Oscar Winning Tears’ with a statement of intent and storytelling is something RAYE clearly does effortlessly. Calling out an ex in explicit detail, there’s very few lyrics wasted here and across the rest of the album. Her performance on this opening track is one of the best I’ve ever heard from her too, vocally she has never sounded so free.

The moments where she directly talks about the music industry are a thrill, ‘Hard Out Here’ talks of ‘All the white men CEOs, fuck your privelage’ which in itself hits the listener hard. But when she gets even more direct ‘Get your pink chubby hands off my mouth’ the seedier and more horrific side of the situation begins to be uncovered. On songs like ‘Ice Cream Man’ Raye dives into a very specific experience of sexually assault, it’s hard enough to listen to, I can’t imagine how difficult it would have been to write and record. It’s this unflinching directness that makes My 21st Century Blues such an engaging album from someone who has literally never been allowed to say what they really think in their music before.

The opening run of the album is stacked with killer moments, ‘Black Mascara’ showing that RAYE making a dance record on her own terms is infinitely better than her ‘feature’ days. The ‘You’ve done to me, you’re done to me’ main hook is as infectious as the first time I heard it. ‘Escapism’ follows suit and fully deserves to be the massive hit it has become. ‘Mary Jane’ and ‘The Thrill is Gone’ feel like going back in time after such a futuristic hit, but the jazz influence suits Raye on both tracks.

The second half of the album continues the cutting lyrics and interesting genre switches of tracks like ‘Body Dysmorphia’ and’ Environmental Anxiety’, but for me songs like ‘Flip a Switch’ and Mahalia duet ‘Five Star Hotels’ don’t quite hold up to the very immediate early promise the album has. ‘Buss It Down’ being a ballad feels an interesting subversion of the type of song you’d expect from that title, but it’s hard to not feel like the album ends with slightly less impact than it begins.

This is still one of the most impressive, immersive and genuinely exciting debut albums I have heard in a long time. An artist finally able to be an ‘artist’ speaking directly and specifically in their lyrics and diving into a new world of genres that couldn’t be further away from the streaming bait she probably felt forced to deliver. I’ll be very shocked if My 21st Century Blues doesn’t take RAYE’s career to a new level, dare I say a potential Mercury Prize winner too?

Words by Sam Atkins

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