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For nearly a decade, RAYE has been one of the most trusted names in songwriting. Having penned tracks for John Legend, Ellie Goulding, and Beyoncé, she’s built an impressive resume simply by doing what she does best – putting a wide range of vulnerable emotions on display. As she is known for wearing her heart on her sleeve, holding back on her feelings is not a hallmark of her craft or personality.
In 2021, after years of frustration due to not being able to put out a full-length album within the timeframe of her deal with Polydor that she signed seven years prior, she took to Twitter to out them for sitting on several albums worth of her music. She also noted that many songs she had written, which she wanted to keep for herself, had been given to other artists.
Shortly after, she parted ways with Polydor and began rewriting her story. Nearly two years after consciously uncoupling from her label, RAYE has finally dropped her long-awaited debut album, My 21st Century Blues.
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When we catch up with RAYE just days before the album release, she is on her tour bus in the pure jubilee and happiness she fought so hard for. Just weeks before, her 070 Shake-assisted banger “Escapism” had reached No. 1 on the UK Official Singles Charts.
“It’s so exciting as an artist to have chart success or mainstream success, but that was never my main goal,” RAYE tells Uproxx. “My main goal is artistic integrity and just loving wholeheartedly what I share with the world and having some time to reassess that and make that the primary. It’s been a really beautiful, ugly, gorgeous, terrible, fun, and liberating process.”
These aforementioned feelings – beautiful, ugly, gorgeous, terrible, fun and liberating – describe the harrowing journey of My 21st Century Blues, which features Raye becoming more conscious in her choices, regardless of how difficult they may be. Shortly after the album’s intro, we are brought into “Oscar Winning Tears,” a soulful, jazz-inspired on which RAYE details the process of leaving an emotionally abusive and manipulative man. On the song, RAYE is fed-up with her ex feigning sadness in order to keep her by his side. No longer fazed by his “Oscar Winning Tears,” she makes an escape, and begins a new, liberated chapter in her life.
Now, all the wiser, she offers the following advice to anyone who is finding themselves with a gaslighter. “Run,” she says. “Run for the hills. Lock the door, book your car, and run.”
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Throughout the course of the album, she grapples with toxic relationships in both romantic and professional contexts. She kicked off the My 21st Century Blues era last summer with “Hard Out Here,” on which, she addresses the toxic masculinity and patriarchal standards of the mainstream music industry.
“What you know about systems / About drugged drinks / F*cking nearly dying from addictions,” she sings over a thumping, punchy track, recounting the experience of so many women singers and songwriters.
RAYE had begun writing a version of the song when she was 19 years old, and she reveals the song originally had “a completely different top line, completely different lyrics, and a different melody on top of it.” She hadn’t been allowed to release it over the years, but when she was finally released from Polydor, she revisited the drafts of the song and took it back to the drawing board.
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“I just vented on the microphone,” she says. “And I didn’t move until it was done. I just wanted to remind myself that no weapon formed against me shall prosper, and I’ll bounce back out of the place that I was in that moment and that I will be okay. I just wanted to create something that made me feel strong and empowered, and you don’t f*cking know the half of it. It was definitely medicine.”
With “Hard Out Here,” RAYE’s newly independent status proved her a promising act. This was further cemented with, “Escapism,” a break-up anthem, detailing an alcohol and drug-fueled night of dancing, crying, and sexcapades. Despite hardly remembering the events that inspired “Escapism,” RAYE provides a detailed account of a debauched night, which led to “drunk calls, drunk texts, drunk tears, drunk sex.”
“I think as a woman when you’re processing such things in life, there are not really any healthy outlets for it,” she says. “I think women do stereotypically face a lot of pressure to seem like they’ve got everything together – to be polite, to be smiley, to be kind, and grateful, and all of this stuff. So I wanted to create a story that was very blunt and honest about that time in my life.”
The video is equally as raw, corresponding to the events RAYE describes in the song, and juxtaposed with haunting visual effects. At one point, RAYE’s eyes become mouths with teeth, and at the bridge, her face morphs into that of her collaborator, 070 Shake.
RAYE reveals that like the recording process of the song, the cinematic process of creating the video was indie in every sense of the word, especially when filming 070 Shake’s verse – which took place in RAYE’s living room.
“Independent artists, you know, we have to cut corners,” she says. “We had a lighting ring and blacked out the room. I was literally on my hands and knees taping bean bags to the windows, to block out the light.”
As the album progresses, we continue to hear more poignant, heartbreaking tales. “The Thrill Is Gone” encapsulates the hurt of realizing the love she shared with someone no longer exists; “Ice Cream Man” details various excruciating stories of sexual assault; and, as its title suggests, “Body Dysmorphia,” puts into words the struggles RAYE feels within her body. On the lattermost, she sings, “Lately I’ve been thinking ’bout the ways to rearrange my face / I wanna cut pieces off / Looking in the mirror / want to take a pair of scissors, sadly dear.” As many of the songs ring personal to RAYE, she has fears not only for herself, but for the state of the world.
This is evident on tracks like “Environmental Anxiety,” on which she calls out corporations for poisoning bodies of water, Boris Johnson for his negligence and incompetence, and social media for implementing unrealistic body standards. RAYE says the song was partially inspired by David Attenborough and his documentaries.
“I love his voice, and the way he describes things and obviously, he’s so passionate about the planet,” she says. “And I’m not a politician, I’m a musician. I have zero power to make any kind of difference, and I think a lot of people feel like that. I think it’s overwhelming and I think that I just wanted to make a chaotic song.”
Even amid the chaos, RAYE is the happiest she’s been in years. Finally having an outlet to share her feelings unrestricted and unfiltered has proven therapeutic for her. Later this month, RAYE will kick off her European and North American tour in support of My 21st Century Blues, and in April, she will support Kali Uchis on her month-long Red Moon In Venus tour.
But despite her finally seeing major success at the forefront, rather than behind the scenes, RAYE says the most beautiful part of this new chapter in her life is finally being able to act on and maintain her own artistic integrity.
“I think as artists, we have got instincts and convictions,” RAYE says. “And it’s so important to be able to trust them. That, in and of itself, is just such a gift.”
My 21st Century Blues is out now. You can stream it here.