Having hit the big time, with her risky declaration of independence already paying off in spades, does her debut album bode well for the future?
The backstory precedes her. In the space of two years RAYE has gone from a competent feature on dance tracks to a fully-fledged independent popstar, with the British scene cheering her on as if they’d all been shafted by Polydor. As she has remarked several times, the mere release of this debut album feels like an achievement regardless of reception, but luckily there are also several great tunes in here to kickstart her solo career.
Unsurprisingly Escapism. is the best track, with its syncopated siren-laced beat and emotional whiplash from verse to chorus and back again. Black Mascara. provides another highlight early on as Punctual‘s bassy house groove accompanies a kiss-off so cold it’s almost sinister (“Once you see my slick eyeliner / blend into my black designer / bags under my eyes, oh, how you / try to understand what you done to me”).
Influences abound, whether it’s the Lizzo-esque bombast of Oscar Winning Tears. or the smooth guitar runs and trap percussion of Five Star Hotels. that evoke SZA’s seamless mix of boldness and vulnerability. Worth It. is rather euphoric in its cute way, its sensual disco feel and smitten lyrics possibly drawing from Beyoncé tracks like Blow or CUFF IT.
The record also displays a wide variety of styles and a desire to set the world to rights, and while admirable in intent this is where the weakness lies. Mary Jane. is one of the longer tracks at nearly four minutes but has the musical value of an interlude, while Environmental Anxiety. fuses Laurie Anderson vocal layers with big beat drums as RAYE rattles off social issues with the apparent personal investment of Patrick Bateman at Evelyn’s dinner table.
Funnily enough Flip A Switch. moves closer to the way her music sounded circa 2018 and is another album highlight, featuring the unfazed attitude that she wears so well (“24 hours in the bed and believe me, it’s ’bout to get freaky / only get to see me when you see me / on the phone screen G, you no longer know me / I no longer want you, you may never hold me”). This would suggest there is a balance to be struck – when RAYE is self-consciously rebelling against the mainstream it results in some of My 21st Century Blues’ worst music, whereas on the best tracks we hear an artist who fully deserves this victory lap and more.