Raye review, My 21st Century Blues: Polydor will be kicking themselves after hearing this exceptional debut

Anger, joy and freedom pulsing through every one of the record’s 13 invigorating tracks (Callum Walker Hutchinson)
Anger, joy and freedom pulsing through every one of the record’s 13 invigorating tracks (Callum Walker Hutchinson)

Oh, to be a fly on the wall of the Polydor boardroom when the suits hear this exceptional debut from Raye. I like to picture jaws dropping so hard and fast they shatter the corporate table that had been her glass ceiling for so long. Rachel Keen was signed to the label for six years, during which she was asked to churn out formulaic dance hits. Meanwhile, the songs she wrote from the heart were either left to collect dust or rejigged for other artists. In 2021, she tweeted about her distress and left Polydor to make My 21st Century Blues as an independent artist. And you can feel the adrenalin rush of anger, joy and freedom pulsing through every one of the record’s 13 invigorating tracks.

If you heard the advance single “Hard Out Here”, you’ll be familiar with the exhilarating sound of a woman calling out those who have treated her badly. “My pen is a gun,” Keen warns at the start, before building righteous momentum over a loping beat. “All the white men CEOs, f*** your privilege/ Get your pink chubby hands off my mouth, f*** you think this is?” Her fury is served up with cool control. The fluid metre of her rapping arrives in short, fiery blasts, like tequila shots.

Keen finds a more vulnerable tone for “Black Mascara” on which she describes having a drink spiked. Her vocals are vocodered into layers that replicate the sensation of losing control as she reminds her assailant simultaneously of her vulnerability and his power. She captures the pain in perfectly framed vignettes. In one moment, Keen describes her make-up trickling into her mother’s lap. “Try to understand just what you’ve done to me,” she repeats over a club beat and wounded strings. The scrawling “Escapism” finds her on a self-destructive night of “drunk tears, drunk texts, drunk texts, drunk sex”.

Things slow down to a silky-smooth pace for the gorgeous, jazzy “Mary Jane” about her addiction to marijuana and codeine. “You take these bitter thoughts in my brain and make them fall like sweet summer rain,” Keen crackle-croons over slo-mo drums and a guitar riff so silky-smooth you can almost inhale it. No one can hold her like codeine can, she sings, and red wine always gives the best advice.

The way Keen marries the swooning drama of classic jazz and soul to postmillennial beats and direct, deadpan vernacular owes a debt to Amy Winehouse. The late singer’s influence is all over the brassy swagger of songs such as “The Thrill is Gone”. Recording in a post-MeToo era, Keen is able to more directly address the issues that Winehouse felt she had to suppress. On “Body Dysmorphia”, she sings of the impossible cultural pressure on women to look “skinny with an hourglass figure”.

The years Keen spent in waiting do mean that she has had time to hone her craft. She has become a vocal ace in many registers. Her rapping is precise and lyrically compelling. She can drop to a whisper or explode into a full-blown wail. She can bend and curve notes like a vintage diva when required, or pull the plug on the pyrotechnics and lean into the mic for a confidential aside (“I’m gonna do what we b****es do best”).

The album’s standout ballad is “Ice Cream Man”. It’s a song she wrote at 18 and one that describes a situation many female artists have encountered: “So this producer hit me up on the DM… He told me ‘Come to the studio, let’s cook it’… But when I got there, shoulda heard what he was saying/ Trying to touch me, trying to f*** me, I’m not playing/ I should have left that place as soon as I walked in it.” Other incidents occurred – from when she was as young as seven years old – before she came to know “what my consent means”. The pain she felt “silently blaming myself” is balanced by a mighty chorus (with a faint melody echo of Leona Lewis’ “Bleeding Love”) on which Keen proclaims herself “a very brave f***ing strong woman/ And I’ll be damned if I let a man ruin/ the way I walk the way I talk the way I do it.” It’s an extraordinary performance in the centre of a very brave, strong record. Hats off, Raye. These blues are smoking hot. I hope Polydor execs are feeling the burn.