It’s not often that a platinum-certified artist can claim to have been slept on. Raye, the mononymous persona of English singer-songwriter Rachel Keen, is familiar with the feeling, having been open about her struggles with a former label that held up her debut album for years.
After a rough public parting with that label, Raye took a brief hiatus before coming back strong with a series of head-turning singles. Now, we are finally getting to experience My 21st Century Blues (★★★★☆).
Her first full-length album is an impressive debut that not only shows off the strengths we already knew she possessed, but shows what she’s capable of when she has free rein.
The first indication that Raye was really onto something came with “Escapism,” Raye’s first single to chart internationally. The song’s trip-hoppy beat clips along at a brisk, tense pace, underscoring the feeling of running away toward better things.
The rest of the album is just as meticulously crafted and has a sense of timelessness about it, helped along by the way she bookends the album with a cabaret-like intro and outro.
Raye’s songwriting is as edgy and fresh as any R&B-inflected pop, but its instrumentation and production is deeply indebted to the best of British jazz and soul. Her ability to bring those two strands together can be heard clearly in the tense strings and bumping synths of “Hard Out Here” and the sense of cinematic drama of “The Thrill is Gone,” released concurrently with “Escapism.”
A deeply personal album from beginning to end, My 21st Century Blues allows Raye to flex her talent as a writer. Even in her vulnerable moments, her delivery is impeccable as she lands poignant observations and revelations with an ear for detail, often allowing them to unfold over catchy beats that draw you in and demand attention.
She pulls this off flawlessly on “Body Dysmorphia,” offering up stark observations on impossible beauty standards and the stress they cause her over a hypnotic R&B rhythm. She’s even more compelling when detailing her relationship with substances on “Mary Jane,” a trippy slow burner of a track that slinks along with dramatic strings and funky guitar.
Raye’s personality and attitude shine through strongly and are infectious. The artist’s fierce wit and magnetic personality come through strongly on tracks like the sardonic “Oscar Winning Tears” and the triumphant “Worth It.”
Occasionally, Raye’s observations land more awkwardly, as they do on “Environmental Anxiety,” which features her furtively rapping a straightforward litany of descriptions of a dying planet complete with samples of sirens and newscast voiceovers. It’s almost too much, but she manages to cap it off with a magnetic moment of humor that somehow ties the whole track together.
As deeply confessional as she gets, Raye never pretends her pain and personal struggles exist in a vacuum. One of her great strengths as a lyricist is the way she is able to precisely point blame where warranted. One of her sharpest moments comes on “Black Mascara,” when she recounts the experience of being roofied and the panic and fury that accompany that loss of bodily control.
The deeply personal “Ice Cream Man,” arguably the album’s standout ballad, was written when she was just 18 and details the experience of having her bodily autonomy violated and her understanding of consent. She reserves some harsh words for the men responsible, including an unnamed producer who put her in a situation too familiar to too many women in the music industry, defiantly singing, “And I’ll be damned if I let a man ruin/the way I walk/the way I talk/the way I do it.”
Of the many strengths on display in My 21st Century Blues, Raye’s authenticity and spark are what make the album truly memorable. She follows up the phenomenal closer “Buss It Down” with “Fin,” a short thank-you interlude that might have come across as a little hokey in the hands of another artist.
After being taken on such a deeply personal journey, it’s difficult not to smile at that small expression of joy and gratitude. It’s also incredible to think what we might have missed out in the six years she spun her wheels with her record company, but now that it is clear what she can do on her own, there is little doubt that she will be an unstoppable force going forward.
My 21st Century Blues is available to stream and purchase. Raye is currently touring Europe and North America. For details, visit www.rayeofficial.com.
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