Raye is having a very good year and, on the evidence of her Royal Albert Hall debut, it deserves to get even better. The 25-year-old singer-songwriter from south London took to her home city’s most venerable venue and absolutely stormed it, delivering one of the most bravura, vocally audacious and charismatically uplifting performances you could hope to witness.
Rachel Keen’s backstory has made her something of a music industry cause célèbre. Raised singing in church choirs and studying at the BRIT school, she was snapped up by record label Polydor aged 17. She enjoyed singles success in the pop dance world, spending years crafting snappy if superficial hits for herself and other artists, including Little Mix, David Guetta and Ellie Goulding. But record bosses had no interest in allowing Raye to express the full range of her talents, until she had a social media meltdown forcing Polydor to release her from her contract.
As an independent artist, she scored a worldwide hit with edgily intense single Escapism and reached number two in the UK charts this year with debut album, My 21st Century Blues. It is a work of wide scope, in which Raye addresses hot-button issues (addiction, body dysmorphia, environmental anxiety) in a blend of styles merging rap, soul, electro, gospel and everything in between. But at its heart lies old -fashioned songcraft, topped off with virtuoso vocal technique. I think she is the most gifted UK artist in her area since Amy Winehouse and Adele, making music that is simultaneously of the moment and timeless.
It was that quality that this one-off show with the 50-piece Heritage Orchestra and 30-member Flames Collective choir emphasised. Under conductor and arranger Tom Richards, the Heritage did an outstanding job of creating truly orchestral versions of Raye’s songs, where strings and horns were fully integrated elements of a funky rhythm section, punching and driving as melodies were gorgeously gilded by flighty woodwind, harp and beautifully integrated choral singing. Some of Raye’s material, such as melodramatic ballad Oscar Winning Tears and swinging The Thrill Is Gone obviously lend themselves to orchestration, but even more impressive was the way the 80 musicians onstage stirred the techno rhythm of Black Mascara and hip hop groove of Hard Out Here.
On top of such a lush sound, Raye was free to sing with jazzy exuberance, scatting on delicate high notes like Ella Fitzgerald and holding on to long notes with a lung power to rival Shirley Bassey. Those may not be influences much bandied about in modern pop, but Raye has a talent that should be able to reach across generations.
Mind you, I don’t suppose many old time divas would have stripped to their underwear to play piano on a delicately intense ballad of sexual abuse, as Raye did with Ice Cream Man. She made it a bold act of performance art, telling the audience “This is how I feel when I sing it: naked.”
Raye talked a lot between songs, gushing with an endearingly nervous energy at the occasion. She swore a lot too, with mouthfuls of expletives filling the august building as she got her pearls tangled with the microphone lead. It all somehow contributed to a vibrant collision of eras, akin to witnessing a modern hip-hop woman lighting up a Hollywood speakeasy during Prohibition.
“When I was just a kid, I told my mum and dad I wanted to be a singer, I wanted to be a writer,” she gushed, fighting back the tears. “And now I’m here singing in the Royal Albert Hall!” For brief moments, emotions threatened to overwhelm her. “I’m sorry, I’m a bit of a wreck right now,” she apologized to huge, storming cheers. But every time she sang, she was back in her element. I have said it before, but I’m going to keep saying it until the world takes note. Raye is a next level talent, who deserves to be Britain’s next superstar.