Raye: My 21st Century Blues review – major label escapee makes revenge taste sweet | Pop and rock

Raye’s debut album begins in a nightclub, with a compere announcing the 25-year-old singer as the star attraction. It’s certainly not the first time an artist has started an album that way, but it’s still surprisingly effective: the MC’s American showbiz voice contrasts thrillingly with Raye’s blunt British accent as she tells a feckless boyfriend where to get off.

Raye sounds confident, as well she might. My 21st Century Blues arrives on the back of Escapism, not just a No 1 single but a fantastic one: catchy but episodic, its booming drums give way to passages of beatless strings, while its sung-spoken lyrics turn a night on the pull into a mass of snappy, witty asides. Escapism arrived after a split from her major label of seven years, an experience that turned so sour you wonder if the ex who “convinced me with bullshit” in Oscar Winning Tears is a person or a metaphor for her experience of the music industry.

The artwork for My 21st Century Blues
The artwork for My 21st Century Blues

Raye’s career started so promisingly, with a buzz around some self-released tracks, a record deal, a place on the BBC’s Sound of … list, and a string of hit singles including Decline, Check and Cigarette. Over the next few years, she dominated pop and racked up silver, gold and platinum discs. But in 2021 she took to social media to complain about her label’s refusal to let her release an album after seven years, posting a charged Instagram live video where she played “pure bangers” that she said Polydor wouldn’t let her put out. They parted company not long after. She set up her own label. Then she went to No 1.

It’s unclear whether her grievance was with her ex-label wanting to control the size of her output or its contents, and whether they wouldn’t release an album, or this album. If it’s the latter, then their attitude wasn’t just patronising but genuinely baffling. My 21st Century Blues roars into life, hitting you with one fantastic song after another.

Based around a smart hook – “Look what you done to me / You’re done to me” – the chattering synths of Black Mascara are an object lesson in how to turn house music into pop without sacrificing any edge. Flip a Switch constructs an impressively lovely cross-stitch of guitar and electronics over a dancehall rhythm, simultaneously delicate and tough. The bluesy Mary Jane, The Thrill Is Gone and Ice Cream Man all balance big hooks with impressively hard-hitting lyrics. The first depicts a former addict bidding farewell to weed, booze and the “chemical hug” of opiates; the second sets the saga of an abusive relationship to urgent, horn-punctuated funk; the last presses a minimal backing and a nailed-on tune into the service of a song about sexual assault that Raye experienced. Meanwhile, if Oscar Winning Tears isn’t about her music biz travails, then the scorching put-down of Hard Out Here definitely is, a livid reflection on dealing with “all of the pricks and all of the wankers / all the white male CEOs”.

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But the major label employee who watched Escapism’s progress up the charts with mounting horror (and ultimately may have felt obliged to offer colleagues a chance to kick them up the arse a la Spinal Tap’s Artie Fufkin) might find their agony ameliorated by the fact that Raye doesn’t have quite enough killer material to fill a 40-minute album. There’s nothing actively bad – although the sped-up vocal sample on Environmental Anxiety veers perilously close to evoking the oeuvre of penis-out amphibian platinum-seller Crazy Frog – but your interest begins to tail off during the more straightforwardly pop-focused second half. The presence of a gospel choir can’t quite stop the ballad Buss It Down from feeling a little boilerplate – in fact, it might compound the problem, the attentions of pop producers having kept gospel choirs fairly rushed off their feet in recent years – and there’s a hint of more of the same about the Auto-Tuned triplet flow of Five Star Hotels.

Whatever its failings, though, there’s enough in the way of potential hit singles – moreover, potential hit singles with attitude and character to spare – on Raye’s debut to ensure that her current success amounts to more than a sympathy vote or a flash in the pan. And that seems the most important thing about My 21st Century Blues. Its backstory raises intriguing questions about how the British music industry deals with female artists, but one suspects Raye is less interested in her past than her future – a future this album suggests is noticeably rosier than it appeared a year ago.

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