Album Review: RAYE – My 21st Century Blues

[Human Re Sources; 2023]

Singer-songwriter Raye has been all over the pop landscape whether you’ve paid attention or not – penning hits, collaborating, being an all-round successful artist in every sense of the word. However, there seemed to be a caveat: the fact that Raye hadn’t released her debut album after many years of being signed. She later publicly revealed that this was, rather bluntly, the result of major label politics. Following this, a brief period of time passed before Raye announced her newfound artistic independence. This might come across as padding, but it is necessary to mention as Raye’s narrative matches those of many other artists who find their voices silenced by a cutthroat industry.

However, while going independent presents its own set of challenges, rising from the ashes of this major label struggle is the victorious and anguished debut album My 21st Century Blues – a 15-track compendium of Raye fearlessly tackling an array of traumatic experiences she’s faced professionally and personally. This is far from a “safe” debut – her authenticity, vulnerability and innate ability to scribe the gory innards of her consciousness on to paper are entirely unique and intimately personal. It is not always the easiest listen and that is precisely the point.

A lot of these tracks roil and seethe in their anger and sadness, but without ever letting the sun get fully eclipsed by the dark. The main element of this album is catharsis: acknowledging the wounds to begin the healing. For example, Raye’s raw heartbreak is explored immediately through the militaristic drums and piano chords of “Oscar Winning Tears”; a theatrical opener where Raye calls out a toxic ex-lover for playing victim once she decides she’s had enough; “I can’t deny, I was stuck in a daze / A terrible phase / You was convincing though, very believable / The role that you played.”

Raye is not too proud to pretend heartbreak glances off her; she goes quite deep into the spiralling despair that accompanies such feelings. “The Thrill Is Gone” is a brutal treatise on the fading of feelings as she sings over the funky, lowkey production: “He’s a Leo sun, a Leo moon, and a Leo rising / Something dies in his eyes when I find them.”

Out of this tapestry of heartbreak is the blunt and deadpan “Escapism”: a descent into distrust and hedonistic excess to distract from the crushing impact of a breakup. She rap-sings across the moody, ominous production with an apathetic numbness: “Last night really was the cherry on the cake / Been some dark days lately and I’m finding it crippling / Excuse my state, I’m as high as your hopes / That you’ll make it to my bed, get me hot and sizzling.” Raye, unlike her pop contemporaries, really dives into the griminess and hollowness of heartbreak that removes any idealistic varnish.

The album bravely faces her experience in the music industry and these tracks often prove the most impactful and venomous. “Hard Out Here” is a lacerating and vengeful collage of strings, thunderous beats, glitchy vocal samples and gut-wrenching emotion as Raye details the horrors she’s experienced “as a young girl in the dungeon.” She directly calls out “white men CEOs” and tells them to “get [their] pink chubby hands off [her] mouth.” The highlight of this track is the pre-chorus where here vocals power through asking: “What you know about systems / About drugged drinks? / Fucking nearly dying from addictions? / You start to wonder why I’m Christian / Without the lord I’d take my life for all the times I’ve been a victim.” The track is incendiary – and as the first single from this album, an absolute risk that pays off.

The centrepiece of these industry horror tales though is the harrowing “Ice Cream Man” – a tale of her experience with sexual assault at the hands of a producer. The mellow R&B production and emotive vocals paint the picture of Raye being at her lowest in the aftermath and the process of overcoming the pain with the powerful declaration: “I’m a very fucking brave strong woman / And I’ll be damned if I let a man ruin / How I walk, how I talk, how I do it.” It is exactly this transparency and directness that makes this album a testament to survival and empowerment.

Occasionally, the album takes a light stumble such as the idiosyncratic and off-kilter “Body Dysmorphia” which features minimalistic production and robotically cold vocals. The lyrics are direct and transparent in describing the battle of self-perception; “For this hourglass we all desire / I wear three corsets underneath / XL T-shirts, baggy jeans so I don’t have to stress about it.” The song isn’t bad, but it feels like a very extreme veer off the road of this album’s narrative.

“Environmental Anxiety” suffers from a similar problem.  Featuring a repeated vocal sample (slightly grating), fast-paced drums and a vaguely trip-hop feel, this track mainly takes the form of a list, with lyrics such as “Forests burning, oil spills / Melting ice and methane gas / Toxic waste and plastic fish / We’re digging holes to hide our trash.” Raye isn’t remotely incorrect, but on the context of this album it feels a little jarring to suddenly have this track detailing our world’s entropic decline. As polarising as these tracks are, however, they still have merit in showing Raye’s willingness to experiment.

For all its emotional turmoil and intense thematic material, Raye concludes the album on a more uplifting note that portends to her looking towards a brighter future. “Five Star Hotel” is a slinky R&B number featuring soothing guitar, a trap beat and amazing melodies done by both Raye and Mahalia, who features on the track. It finds Raye enjoying the high life but still craving someone who lives far away from her. The dynamic is casual but feigned (“And I know I’ve been distant / I’ve been seeing other guys / You’ve been kissing other bitches”) and she is teasing and seductive on the record. Album highlight “Worth It” is a jazzy and breezy track that feels like the soundtrack to a classic Hollywood film and finds Raye at her most romantic; “You could be, be my glass of wine / In the sunset, help me exhale all the excess”. It is a feel-good track that does its job of being ear candy naturally.

The album’s final track is the gospel-tinged “Buss It Down” – a gloriously fun conclusion to this intense record. Raye sings about partying it up and loving herself over stripped back piano, victoriously proclaiming: “I’m ‘gon buss it down / I’m ‘gon buss it” before a choir exalts: “She ‘gon buss it!” It proves that even after so much strife, Raye is feeling her way back to brighter days and reveling in her success and strength.

My 21st Century Blues is an incredible album – striking, brutal, raw and ultimately, hopeful. It is a testament to personal and professional perseverance. Rarely do pop artists dive this deep on their debut album and wear their bleeding hearts on their sleeves the way Raye has. To know this is only the beginning is exciting for both the artist and the listeners who will no doubt emerge from this listening experience feeling like they too can overcome the obstacles thrown in their path.