When Raye climbed to number one with “Escapism” earlier this month, it wasn’t just deserved, but deliciously ironic. The wildly talented singer-songwriter spent seven years on a major label chasing hits that came, all too often, at the expense of her own musical identity. At an intimate gig in London last October, she sang her massive 2021 house banger “Bed”, a collaboration with DJ-producers Joel Corry and David Guetta that is now nudging 400 million Spotify streams, after telling the audience first: “It’s not my favourite song, but it did great for my bank account.” Few musicians are ever this mischievous or candid.
So now, it’s even sweeter for Raye to be toasting her first-ever chart-topper 18 months after she left that label to become an independent artist. Her debut album My 21st Century Blues, a searingly and at times shockingly honest collection of soulful confessionals, is ready to be shipped from the vinyl factory. No one could mistake the stinging self-recrimination of “Escapism” for the naggingly catchy hook she sang on “Bed”: “I got a bed, but I’d rather be in yours tonight.” A decidedly darker offering, “Escapism” went viral on TikTok thanks to its ominous, bass-heavy beat and lyrics about self-medicating after a break-up. “I don’t trust any of these bitches I’m with in the back of the taxi sniffin’ cocaine,” Raye sings on the pre-chorus.
A day before it hits the top spot, at her music-filled house in south London, the 25-year-old has a spirited response to anyone who suggests she bought her TikTok streams. “Shut the fuck up!” says the woman born Rachel Agatha Keen in nearby Tooting. “You can’t pay for that [kind of] exposure; it just happens.” Still, Raye admits the song’s global success has kind of blindsided her – “Escapism”, which features US rapper 070 Shake, has since climbed to number 22 on the Billboard Hot 100. “It feels like I’m in some sort of dream, trance-like reality,” she says with widening eyes. “I said to one of my team at the beginning of the album campaign: ‘Like, imagine if one of these songs went to number one.’ Then we just looked at each other and burst out laughing! And now it’s happened. That’s fucked up!”
“It feels like I’m in some sort of dream, trance-like reality. I said to one of my team at the beginning of the album campaign: ‘Like, imagine if one of these songs went to number one.’ ... And now it’s happened. That’s fucked up!” – Raye
At this point, it’s helpful to jump back to June 2021, when Raye sowed the seeds for the creative renaissance she is enjoying today. In a post that shook Pop Twitter and the British music industry, she called out Polydor, her label of seven years, for refusing to release her debut album. “I’ve done everything they asked me, I switched genres,” she wrote, referring to the way she was remodelled as a mainstream dance artist making bops for Love Island and commercial radio. “I’m done being a polite pop star,” she added defiantly. Three weeks later, after it became clear their working relationship was untenable, Raye thanked Polydor for allowing her to make a “graceful smooth exit” from this extended period of major label purgatory.
During her Polydor years, Raye racked up nine Top 40 hits with earworms including “You Don’t Know Me”, a collaboration with British DJ-producer Jax Jones, and “Secrets”, which teamed her with Kosovo-Albanian dance star Regard. She has previously admitted she became a “rent-a-verse” by jumping on other artists’ tracks, an exchange that tended to benefit her male collaborators more than her. Some of Raye’s major label music was excellent – her 2020 mini-album Euphoric Sad Songs already feels like a lost classic – but it didn’t necessarily represent her. Whenever an Uber driver would look her up on Spotify, she would tell them apologetically: “Just bear in mind that this song is very that. But one day, I’m going to make music that’s more like this.”
“I’m literally singing about how I used to wear three pairs of Spanx under my dress so my stomach wouldn’t come out And how this ugly, ugly pressure morphed into an eating disorder. It’s pretty visceral” – Raye
Striking out on her own over the last 18 months has been enriching and exhausting in equal measure. “I thought I worked hard before, but it’s on a whole other level now,” she says. “I’m a control freak anyway, but there’s so much fine print and detail to every aspect of being an independent artist.” Raye has two phones – one for communicating, the other showing her streaming figures – and readily admits her social life “doesn’t currently exist”. But, she adds brightly, it’s all worth it because she’s finally about to drop My 21st Century Blues, a spiky and uncompromising debut album without an ounce of self-censorship. When I ask whether she thinks she could have released it on a major, she replies bluntly: “No.”
Raye says she wasn’t afraid to write about “heavy subjects” in an “explicit” way, and cites the album track “Body Dysmorphia” as a prime example. “I’m literally singing about how I used to wear three pairs of Spanx under my dress so my stomach wouldn’t come out,” she says. “And how this ugly, ugly pressure morphed into an eating disorder. It’s pretty visceral.” Raye isn’t exaggerating, but she also gave “Body Dysmorphia” a buoyant beat so its biting lyrics are easier to digest. “God knows how many people out there are dealing with this,” she says with an empathetic sigh. “But it’s not a comfortable conversation to have. You can’t go out for a drink with friends and say: ’By the way guys, I threw up all my food last night because I felt shit and had a binge.’ I know because I struggled in silence.”
“My self-confidence, my self-worth and my trust in myself has improved tenfold – as has my joy. God, I’m just so much better than I was” – Raye
Equally visceral is “Ice Cream Man”, a heartbreaking ballad about Raye’s experiences of sexual assault, including an incident with an unnamed music producer that she has spoken about in the past. “I felt his ice-cold hands, he should havе been arrested then,” she sings on the pre-chorus. “That song is so important to me,” she says. “I’ve held on to so much: the trauma, the PTSD, the panic attacks, the depression. All the ways I was impacted by something as disgusting as what I’ve experienced. You know, it was exactly as it says in the lyrics. And I didn’t tell a soul.” Today, she simply describes this song as “medicine”. Putting it out is her “way of being loud – and brave – about something that I’ve been scared of for so, so long”.
The album is definitely hard-hitting, but it also captures the infectiously fun side of Raye’s personality that lights up her live shows. On the flamenco-flecked “Flip a Switch”, she promises to “flip a switch on a prick” who treated her badly. “You need them songs as well!” she says with a laugh. “I play it when I need to feel like I’m a bad bitch. It’s just another form of medicine, isn’t it?” She believes My 21st Century Blues will continue to change perceptions of her after the “rent-a-verse” era. “I want people to think of me as a musician, a songwriter and an authentic artist, as opposed to [just] a singer,” she says. And she is done explaining herself to Uber drivers – they can play “Escapism” and hear exactly who she is. “My self-confidence, my self-worth and my trust in myself has improved tenfold – as has my joy,” she says with a defiant smile. “God, I’m just so much better than I was.”
My 21st Century Blues is released on February 3