Album Of The Week: RAYE – My 21st Century Blues

The singer-songwriter’s emotional rollercoaster of a debut is our pick of the week’s best new releases

“The man that I love sat me down last night and he told me that it’s over – dumb decision,” sings RAYE on ‘Escapism.’. These are the lines from her debut album’s third single that saw the singer explode on TikTok. Listeners coming to My 21st Century Blues from this hedonistic, R&B-meets-hip hop romp through the city may be surprised by the soft piano and spoken word of the record’s intro. It isn’t RAYE’s voice that greets us, but the compère of a gently buzzing jazz club, welcoming us to the show.

RAYE, 070 Shake - Escapism. (Official Music Video)

My 21st Century Blues is, loosely, a narrative record, telling a story of heartbreak turned self-appreciation in a similar vein to Beyoncé’s Lemonade. To this end, the piano bar is a fantastic framing device – whenever RAYE slips back into those sultry, jazzy moments, we are reminded that we are watching her stand at the mic and pour her heart out. What is already a confessional album becomes even more intimate, and its central figure – some version of RAYE’s heartbroken self – even more real to us.  

RAYE - Hard Out Here

Understandably, RAYE is sad for much of the album. She watches her boyfriend deliver his insincere breakup speech in ‘Oscar Winning Tears’, she cries in her mothers arms in ‘Black Mascara’ and she resigns herself to a life of emotional distance in ‘Flip A Switch’. Arguably the record’s most joyful moments only arrive in its final two tracks. But My 21st Century Blues is far from a laborious listen – even in the throws of heartbreak, Raye retains her sense of humour. Biting lyrics cut through the melancholy, lines that often manage to be funny and devastating at the same time (“and I’m already acting like a dick, know what I mean? So you might as well stick it in).

RAYE - Black Mascara.

The snarky, quippy writing we grow accustomed to means that when the album does go for the jugular, it seldom misses. The brutal ‘Body Dysmorphia’ ends a list of RAYE’s body issues with a few spoken lines from a young girl: “I hope I’ll be pretty when I grow up, or I think I’ll be sad.” ‘Ice Cream Man’ details a struggle to retain her sense of self after all the men who have taken advantage of her. “I’m a very f*cking brave strong woman”, she reminds herself. As is true across most of the record, her voice is an emotional sponge. There’s no nuance it can’t take on.

RAYE - The Thrill Is Gone. (Official Visualizer)

Musically, My 21st Century Blues is adventurous, spanning pop, hip hop, R&B, EDM and jazz. Ambitious and occasionally wonderfully chaotic production – such as the Earth-is-burning sound of ‘Environmental Anxiety’ – remind us that RAYE is no new upstart, but an artist grinding away at her craft for seven years before a bid for independence allowed her to release a debut album. When she sits down on the album’s fourteenth and final track (barring an emotional spoken outro) to play a piano ballad called ‘Buss It Down’, she somehow gets away with it.

“I’m gone buss it down,” she croons over the keys. “She’s gone buss it”, agrees the gospel choir behind her. It’s hilarious, expertly done, and strangely moving. As RAYE has laid out for us, she’s been through enough. It’s nice to hear her having fun.

Released: 3 Feb 2023
Label: Human Re Sources
On Tour: Supporting Jungle at All Points East, playing Connect in August and on tour from 26 September