RAYE performing at PRYZMDREW DE FAWKES/WIKICOMMONS, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=128408872

Where it hits, it hits. RAYE’s strongest moments see her in turn both seductive and heartbroken, but the album’s weaker tracks are so on the nose as to be clichéd.

Eighteen months after leaving Polydor over frustrations with their alleged refusal to release her debut album, RAYE has dropped the 15-track project My 21st Century Blues as a newly-independent artist. Ambitiously presented and fluid, the album covers a range of moods and showcases a great deal of feeling — hurt and humour are present in almost equal measure.

This cocktail of grief and levity is intoxicating on tracks such as the viral “Escapism”, as well as “Hard Out Here” (both electronic pieces produced by Mike Sabath) and on the more sensual tracks, “Five Star Hotels” (featuring Mahalia) and “Mary Jane”. Where the album falters is on the more lyrically banal tracks, particularly “Environmental Anxiety”, whose sole purpose is to decry hot-button issues by rehashing Twitter-friendly sentiments with which we’re all familiar.

The opening track, “Oscar Winning Tears”, follows a spoken introduction skit set in a Jazz and Blues club; both are apt in their cinematic references, as RAYE delivers a vocally ambitious and instrumentally rich serving of disrespect to a manipulative ex. Her ability to transparently recount traumatic experiences with endearing humour is best displayed on “Escapism”, which (deservedly) reached viral status, peaking at number one in the UK. Focusing on the tongue-in-cheek lyrics, doesn’t detract from the genuine anguish so candidly on display in the track. It’s a tale of alcohol and drug dependency from someone who is now sober; a tale of unsafe sex, of self-destruction on a level perhaps incomprehensible to those who haven’t experienced similar.

“The track is playful and teasing, and tells of a mutual, premeditated attraction”

Another standout is “Five Star Hotels”, a slinky, lustful track featuring Mahalia. It is a tale of a healthier sexual relationship than the one portrayed in “Escapism”, the track is playful and teasing, and tells of a mutual, premeditated attraction. The stripped-back, “Mary Jane”, is a jazzy, vocal-heavy performance, unsurprising given RAYE’s stated admiration for Amy Winehouse.

My 21st Century Blues is also an exhibit in variegated sonic parts: as well as “Escapism”, “Black Mascara” is a razor-like dance track; the theatricality of “Oscar Winning Tears” is mirrored, by the more mellow track, “The Thrill is Gone”. Overwhelmingly, the track list is composed of slick and sophisticated Pop-R&B. RAYE glides from genre to genre with ease, and all thirteen full-length tracks are perfectly suited to her intense vocals.

It’s a shame that the album then takes occasional meanders into uninspired and familiar Pop formulae. It turns predictably feel-good on the track “Buss It Down”, preachy on “Environmental Anxiety”, and downright creepy with the pitched up infantile monologue at the end of “Body Dysmorphia”. Moments of the album’s runtime seem to lean back on lethargic pop-culture clichés. I found better with her less original tracks by simply turning off my brain as I listened.


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It’s unsurprising, given her public callout of her former label and precarious newly-independent status, that RAYE has expressed concern with the issue of “cancel culture”, as she seemed fearful that the album would be poorly received. My 21st Century Blues certainly tells a story which will be bleakly familiar to some: trauma, self-destruction, disordered eating, addiction and anxiety.

Yet what RAYE presents here doesn’t feel derivative, and certainly isn’t a self-pitying dirge lasting three quarters of an hour. She’s found a groove which feels largely fresh, in spite of the cultural candidness which has grown up around these subjects in recent years. Nonetheless, she received no nominations at this year’s BRIT Awards, which have already received criticism for their all-male best artist category; her perspective would perhaps be at odds with such a lineup.