Raye My 21st Century Blues
21st February 2023
Words: Christopher Richmond
Some albums are filled with intention, every aspect of their construction bursting with deliberateness and purpose. And some albums are not, merely existing as a collection of cobbled together singles without anything of note to string the separate pieces together. There are some brilliant albums that fit into the latter category, but the majority fit into the former, with the tracks held within them telling a thematic story that flows from one track to the next, the end result being a thorough and intense snapshot of the mind of the album’s creator. Raye’s My 21st Century Blues categorically fits into this group.
It’s been an uphill battle for Raye. Her first single was back in 2015, and she’s had a string of moderate successes on the charts since then, but mostly as a generic features girl for countless nameless DJs. Due to cruel label fuckery, an album never materialised, and it seemed for a while that Raye’s career would comprise entirely of dance collabs. It’s not been entirely uninteresting, but neither has it been particularly compelling either. Crucially, it hasn’t been clear who Raye is as a person or an artist or what she has to offer. And she knew this. And she’s done something about it. This album answers all of those questions.
‘Escapism’, a Tik Tok favourite, is an album highlight with its grittily bitter lyrics that Raye sharply spits into the microphone. ‘Environmental Anxiety’ is a hectic rush of a song with a thrashing drum and deep bass that strikes contrastingly with Raye’s concerned vocal, whilst ‘Black Mascara’ finds Raye lamenting a lost love over a thumpingly dark beat in a brief splash of house-adjacent dance music. ‘The Thrill Is Gone’ is pure Winehouse with its boisterous horns and biting storytelling, whilst ‘Ice Cream Man’ is a genuinely moving battle-cry of inner strength and resilience. The production across the collection is full and bodied, swelling with the depth of a full orchestra, the sound of violins and horns and cellos bringing Raye’s tender vocal to life. The album is packed with contemporary colloquialisms - things live in Raye’s head ‘rent free’ - grounding the collection into the modern day, but it somehow marries this with the old-school. It’s the soundtrack to a performance in an underground jazz club - literally, Raye introduces the album like it’s the beginning of a live-gig giving the collection the most incredible sense of place and time.
Bookending My 21st Century Blues, there’s a spoken-word introduction and conclusion emphasising just how much the collection means to Raye, but which also serves as a reminder of just how intentionally the album has been constructed. There’s a decidedly cinematic thread running through the album with its soaring strings and orchestral flavour. She’s London born and raised, and the collection can’t help but hold within it a strong sense of that wonderful city. The influence of the likes of Amy Winehouse and Joss Stone glisten all over the collection, as well as the sharp lyricism of Lily Allen. As devastating as it must have been for Raye to be locked into the prison-like deal which prevented her from conceptualising a full album until now, there’s a strange benefit to the situation. Where debut albums are usually a little rough around the edges, darting from genre to genre as the wide-eyed artists attempt to hone in on the sound that suits them best, this debut is different. It doesn’t feel like a debut. It feels like a third or fourth album by an artist who is totally sure of themselves and their sound. In another life, it should be Raye’s third or fourth album. It’s confident and it’s mature, and it’s totally accomplished. It’s a proper collection of songs, a real album that takes its listeners on a journey through the intricacies of Raye’s mind - just as an album should do.