Advertisement

Raye review, O2 Arena: From sweet siren coos to chesty Broadway belts, this Brit winner does it all

Raye at her O2 Arena headline show  (Jean Yuzheng Zhang)
Raye at her O2 Arena headline show (Jean Yuzheng Zhang)

Minutes into her first O2 Arena headline show, Raye asks a favour of the audience. “I forgot to put my nipple covers on,” she says with a laugh. “Can you guys hold me down, yeah?” It’s a request that the 20,000-strong crowd accepts with gusto – any and all wardrobe malfunctions will stay in this room. “Not the professional way to start a show!” she jokes.

It’s a perfect example of the frank, unpretentious banter that runs across the taut 95-minute set. Earnest, endearing and often hilarious, Raye is committed to sharing her feelings with all who’ll listen. Her open-book nature makes you root for her from the get-go – but it’s her roof-blowing vocals, which secure her status as a once-in-a-generation talent.

A fortnight ago, the 26-year-old singer-songwriter was on this very stage making history as she tearfully collected six of the seven Brit Awards she was nominated for. It was the cherry on top of a glittering 12 months that followed a less-than-amicable split with her former label. With the release of her long-awaited debut album, My 21st Century Blues, South London-born Rachel Keen became the artist she’d always dreamed of being. The record combined R&B, house, blues and pop with powerhouse, melismatic vocals. It received widespread critical acclaim, appearing on several album of the year lists before taking the top gong at the Brits this month. Gone are the days of record label CEOs limiting her to guest appearances; of boardroom suits underappreciating her talents or “sitting on diamonds” as she sings on the thunderous “Hard Out Here”. Raye has arrived, and now, it’s time to celebrate.

Tonight, she elevates her punchy album to new levels by inviting the 60-piece Heritage Orchestra and gospel choir Flames Collective to join her on stage for a symphonic, jazz-infused interpretation of the tracklist – an experiment that already proved successful at the Royal Albert Hall last year. Album opener “Oscar Winning Tears” is first up, and does well to set the tone for the dramatic show that follows. Complementing the big band accompaniment, Raye skillfully syncopates the verses from their original rhythms and weaves in sumptuous jazz scatting. Slipping from sweet, siren coos to chesty Broadway-esque belts at a moment’s notice, Raye’s voice is magnificent.

On stage, Raye pumps her fist down in time with drum beats, swings her mic cord to match the musical surges, and stamps her bare feet to the jaunty trills of the brass section. When she shares insights into how the record’s more tender tracks came about, she manages to make a space of thousands feel intimate. As Raye admits to the self-consciousness that inspired “Body Dysmorphia”, you can see her bottom lip tremble from a mile away, before she launches into the soulful slow-burn of “Mary Jane”, on which she divulges her past issues with substance abuse.

The most poignant moment of the night comes courtesy of “Ice Cream Man”, a song about sexual assault. She acknowledges that it “never gets easier” to perform, and has the arena reverentially rapt before she even takes a seat at the piano. There is a real sense of triumph in not only what she has overcome but what she has been able to create from it: her gentle piano chords are eventually joined by a full, rumbling tidal wave of sound from the band.

Draped in a glittering silver disco dress, Raye raises the mood with club bangers “Flip a Switch” and “Black Mascara”. The stage is alight with dancing strobe lights – a nice nod to her house roots. When a fracas breaks out between audience members during her performance of TikTok favourite, “Prada”, Raye stamps it out like a seasoned pro: “Please, I don’t want anyone to get kicked out, that’s dead.”

Raye elevated her punchy album to new levels at the O2 Arena (Jean Yuzheng Zhang  @jeanyuzhengart)
Raye elevated her punchy album to new levels at the O2 Arena (Jean Yuzheng Zhang @jeanyuzhengart)

Ever transparent, Raye soft-launches the end of the show by reassuring us that it’s not quite over yet: she’ll be back for an encore. She disappears briefly before returning to close out the night with her No 1 hit “Escapism”. It’s a majestic conclusion to an electrifying live performance – the first of many for Raye, if tonight is any indication.