Raye Rewrites Her Story With 'My 21st Century Blues'
Dialing in from the dressing room of Glasgow’s OVO Hydro arena, fresh off an opening slot on Lewis Capaldi’s United Kingdom tour, the pop-turned-R&B starlet Raye is ready to discuss her nearly decade-long journey here. The release of her debut album My 21st Century Blues, out today (February 3), fills her with a mix of apathy and pride, the perspective of a woman who acknowledges her past trauma, but has healed enough to “finally speak her shit on it.” The 15-track record, framed as a series of unrelated short stories, oscillates between reflections on addiction and sexual assault to sunny island vacations and budding self-confidence. This project is Raye’s “everything,” she tells MTV News. “The dark and light and sexy and ugly.”
But before Raye was willing (and able) to divulge her many complex truths, she was navigating life as Rachel Keen, a born Londoner and the oldest of three sisters growing up in a Ghanaian-Swiss-British, church-going household. At an early age, she admired the “big, soulful voices” of Louis Armstrong, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, and Etta James, all of whom soundtracked a childhood spent alongside her grandmother. However, it was the meaningful lyrics she heard in the work of Alicia Keys and Jill Scott that inspired her to pick up the pen herself. She began composing her first songs at only 7 years old, the first of which was inspired by an encounter with a man who was experiencing homelessness in her neighborhood. Though she teases that her voice sounded like “a strangled rat” at the time, she knew even then that her only path forward was to become an artist. “It all became about how do I get there?” she says.
She went on to sign a publishing deal at 14, setting her on a trail toward eventually writing for other artists like Charli XCX, John Legend, Little Mix, and even Beyoncé. At the same time, she enrolled at the famous BRIT School to begin a formal education in music. However, the experience was ultimately cut short when she accepted a four-album recording contract with Polydor Records in 2014, and Rachel transformed into Raye. “It was actually a really confusing day for me. I wasn’t really understanding what was going on,” she recalls. “But as a kid from South London who had no clue how to get into the music industry, it was my first step closer to achieving my dreams.”
However, that dream quickly became a nightmare. The young artist, who was determined to make her mark through R&B, was “informed that this kind of music doesn’t sell in the U.K, and that I needed to learn to write more uptempo songs to adapt to the market,” she says. “I was told that once I had a fan base, I’d get to release my album. So it became very much working for the man. I was like, OK, what do I need to do? What do I need to hand in?”
The result of those efforts were the pop-heavy EDM hits, such as “By Your Side,” “Tequila,” “Secrets,” and “Bed,” which were anchored around Raye’s voice and, combined, made her one of the electronic-pop genre’s most sought-after singers. However, at her first New York showcase in November 2022, she described the songs as “ones that only made her bank account happy.” Despite their virality, with each track garnering hundreds of millions of digital streams, the euphoria she felt from their successes was ultimately short-lived. “It was so exciting in so many ways, but I had no creative control because I was the featured artist. You feel very much like a spare part of the record,” she says. “It’s hard to necessarily even feel ownership over those moments.”
The last of these EDM-led releases was “Call On Me,” a similarly spirited single refined with an air of maturity and more substantive messaging. With her name finally at the top of the bill, Raye hoped it would finally mark the start of her first-ever album cycle, a stressful experience she describes as her “last go.” As she alluded to in a tweet, she says that she was told by label executives that the fate of her future releases was dependent on the success of the track, which added “an unbelievable amount of pressure” on her every day. “Waking up, checking statistics, checking chart data, it just contradicted everything I believed as an artist,” she recalls. “It was ugly and awful and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.”
Three weeks later, her anxiety intensified until it felt insurmountable, eventually leading to a public breaking point. In July 2021, she published a nine-post Twitter thread alleging contractual entrapment that made her unable to release a full project. “I sat in my room on the floor, staring at a poster of Nina Simone, [who once] said, ‘It’s an artist’s duty to reflect the times.’ And I’m like, What am I doing to reflect the times? I’m sick of this. I’m over it.”
Upon hitting “send tweet” on the posts that had the potential to set her career ablaze, Raye was understandably overcome with the fear of label retaliation. She was aware that the company had “[her] life in their papers,” and was concerned that she would be “shelved” rather than released as she’d hoped. However, an unexpected outpouring of both public and industry support brought attention to her story, and subsequently put pressure on executives to respond accordingly. After a fortnight of negotiations, she was officially freed from her contract, and her life was now her own.
After nearly a year of “intense soul-searching, processing, and therapy,” Raye returned to the scene with the pointed and vindictive “Hard Out Here,” an unequivocally dark, grime-inspired track to mark her first offering as an independent artist. Reminding the world that “[her] pen is a gun,” she intentionally began this new era with rebellion, which she also sees as an act of self-advocacy. “It’s important to remind yourself that you’re good enough, which this song did in an explicit and slightly aggressive way. But I also needed to remind myself that my dreams and pain are valid,” she explains. “This was me forgiving and letting go of resentment.”
Adding a period to the end of her song titles to denote each inhabits its own universe, Raye believes her music’s only red thread is her honesty. Refusing to fall back into the trap of chasing chart success, Raye focused on nurturing herself as an artist rather than as a commodity. The grittiness of “Hard Out Here” was followed by “Black Mascara,” which was inspired by European techno, and the trip-hop-infused “Escapism,” neither of which fit the mold of mainstream success. However, the latter, which features the rapper 070 Shake, became an unexpected TikTok sensation and caused the track to climb the charts nonetheless. “Escapism,” eventually landed both artists their first No. 1 hit in the U.K. and their first chart position on the Billboard Hot 100. “I wasn’t prepared for any of it. I’d actually prepared myself for the opposite,” Raye recalls with a laugh. “I just wanted to release whatever I wanted and love it passionately. It’s so beautiful and validating to feel seen with music that I’m actually proud of.”
Finally, with the release of her album, Raye feels like “a real artist.” At just 45 minutes, My 21st Century Blues aims to distill the feeling of a live set at a middle-American jazz club, opening with a prelude titled “Introduction,” which features a recorded “MC” welcoming her to the fictionally set stage. The record then makes its grand entrance with the classic and timeless “Oscar Winning Tears,” a song Raye knew was destined to be its first full song. “Even though it’s a really classic-sounding six-eight, and we’ve got gorgeous strings in there… it’s actually a story for anyone who’s been severely gaslit,” she describes. Much the same as the artist behind it, My 21st Century Blues revels in such juxtapositions and garners strength from its nuance.
But for Raye, strength is weakness. Though there are many moments of uninhibited vulnerability throughout the project, tracks like “Body Dysmorphia” and “Ice Cream Man,” strike a particularly harrowing chord. The latter, which candidly recounts a painful experience with sexual assault, was originally written in 2016 but completed just last December. Though the process of composing and revising the song was a deeply liberating experience, it remains difficult for her to both hear and perform. “We all just do this thing where we put our trauma in a box and push it down to bury it,” she posits. “But that’s the thing with this kind of art. You do have to go back into that space to get it out and be honest with it.” A self-directed music video, which Raye describes as “one of the hardest fucking things I’ve ever done,” is soon to be released.
Though Raye invokes some degree of masochism when creating, and subsequently releasing, these songs, she rarely fears oversharing. “I would rather frame [my negative thoughts] in a beautiful song, in a way that feels nice to me, than battle with it alone,” she says. “That’s kind of the essence of this album for me.”
Composed over the course of nearly six years, but finalized within the past 18 months, My 21st Century Blues is a culmination of Raye’s life’s work thus far. With that comes an assemblage of sounds pulled from her past, most of which don’t adhere to any particular formula, or, at times, even musical structure. While “Mary Jane” leans completely blues and “Flip a Switch” shape-shifts into trap, the crux of this genre-bending anarchy can be seen most clearly on “Environmental Anxiety,” an “intentionally chaotic” song that describes all the ways that the human race is essentially screwed. Written in a forest in Utah, the spit-fire, panic-inducing lyrics are a result of a “huge spiral” Raye fell into about the planet dying. The track features no real lead vocal, instead opting for layers of Raye’s own harmonies over an alarmingly quick, drum-led melody and a number of highly-realistic sound effects, such as iPhone ringtones, police sirens, church bells, and tire screeches. The result is a true sign of the times.
Although My 21st Century Blues is an album to which anyone can relate, the triad of tracks that conclude it is strictly for the girls. “Five Star Hotels,” which features Mahalia, was designed with confident lyrics over a rich hip-hop beat to evoke a sense of “sexy empowerment,” Raye says. “Worth It,” with its groovy textures and sunny demeanor, represents “warmth and hope for the future.” But the album’s closer, “Buss It Down,” is the true showstopper. The gospel-inspired melody originally featured equally hymn-like lyrics, perfectly aligned with the full-bodied, piano-led melody. However, upon finding her first round of lyrics “too boring” and predictable, Raye urged her team to transform the song into “an act of hot girl rebellion” by writing lyrics that “say the opposite of how this feels.” Despite its cheeky and sensual themes, the song maintains its original essence, fully equipped with choral effects recorded by Raye herself over hundreds of takes.
Raye takes her final bow with “Fin,” a 30-second epilogue functioning as a live-action liner note filled with thank-yous and dedications. “I wanted a chance to close out [the album] because I’m so grateful to have made it to this moment,” she explains. “I wanted to have a space to express that as a permanent little marker on this album because I never want to forget this feeling.”
Creating these songs has had a near-“medicinal” effect on Raye, one that she hopes will aid listeners in their “search for their own form of escapism.” And despite the challenges she’s faced along the way, Raye maintains that she has no regrets. “As hard and ugly and tough as it was, everything that’s happened is why I’m here today with an album like this,” she says. “That’s what makes it special. That’s what makes me special.”