Raye is a reminder that music is starting to transcend beyond getting defined by a monochromatic-core genre. We’ll still see artists releasing genre-specific albums, but Raye delivers an impactful review that is off in varying lanes on her debut, My 21st Century Blues. It goes through various avenues of styles, and often, you’ll get caught by surprise. One minute you’ll hear Raye rap – the next, she’s delivering a stellar dance-pop – then some trip-hop or house, it’s a treasure trove of limitless possibilities, and it gets boasted by a poignant personal narrative she takes us through. She sets up this intimate setting – we hear her get up on an old club stage, speaking to an audience before embarking on a significant musical journey that makes us dance, feel, and witness harmonious brilliance in effect. Creating this visual allows the shifting sounds to come with a positive punch, further making you love how fantastic this album is from front to back.
My 21st Century Blues has innate consistency, weaving through contrasting and detailed styles that expand beyond pop. The first few tracks have this gripping sense of musical grandeur, which boasts the impact of the songwriting, like the trip-hop heavy “Hard Out Here,” which sees Raye reflecting on her bleakest moments and weaving infectious confidence about making it out here. So it’s safe to say I was immediately mesmerized by the production; it bolsters Raye’s performance to showcase the emotional density she brings. It reflects in Raye’s melodies, which shift from the more atmospheric Dance-Pop aesthetic of Euphoric Sad Songs to unearthed complexions within and adding some hip-hop flows. We’re listening to that lyrical potency from Euphoric Sad Songs growing into naturally seamless synergy between the beats and performance, creating this larger-than-life book with each page centering on the blues. Raye isn’t sugar-coating the lyrics, coming at it directly while being able to paint the scene for the situation or story she chooses to tell.
On My 21st Century Blues, Raye sings about varying topics like relationships, getting spiked at the club, body dysphoria, mental escapism, environmental awareness, sexual assault, etc. The songwriting is cognitively steering conversations about situations that happen to many while retaining that essence of sad dancing that artists within pop try to navigate but sometimes fail to deliver. Artists like Ava Max and Madison Beer tend to follow this wave without making something profound, but Raye aims to let their distinct styles flood the stage effervescently. It’s through this tenacity to build a foundation before settling into the story that allows these themes about consent, maturity, doomed relationships, etc., within the complex structure of the production. We hear a clean separation between the sound and vocals, and you sense Raye’s musical aptitude – she co-produces many tracks, predominantly with Mike Sabbath – producer of songs like “Don’t Go Yet” by Camilla Cabello and “Hurts Like Hell” by Charli XCX.
When it comes to the unique contrasting routes Raye takes, “Black Mascara” and “Escapsim” come to mind, or “The Thrill is Gone” and Environmental Anxiety.” “Black Mascara” and “Escapsim” embody two different zones while seamlessly transitioning, despite the separation in style. The former illustrates this centralized Deep-House core while Raye overlays these luscious pop and trip-hop-influenced flows and melodies. The latter centers more on Electro-Pop and Hip-Hop, using more drums and letting them create this captivating pattern that stabilizes the electronic overtones, and the way they transition is smooth. The way “Escapism” blends into “Mary Jane” opens up the room to strings, which then get elevated on the following track, “The Thrill is Gone.” It goes the same for Raye’s more subdued ballad-like performances with contrasting styles, like the summer disco and funk-influenced “Worth it” to the piano-pop, singer-songwriter approach of “Buss It Down.” It’s awe-inducing.
Unfortunately, it isn’t all fluid. Though the track “Environmental Anxiety” is snug in the tracklist, it feels distant compared to the more personal elements of others. Raye does sing about anxiety, but she relegates most of the subject within the confines of climate change. I’m not a climate change denier, but the content doesn’t totally align with the depth of the others. That isn’t to say it’s a poor song, but it doesn’t hit me with that kind of oomph like “Hard Out Here” or “Ice Cream Man.” Without it, the album would be more well-rounded and let the visual of an intimate stage performance setting come off flawlessly. It’s a song (where in this setting) that feels panderish instead of natural.
My 21st Century Blues is fantastic, for lack of a better term. It weaves varying stories and production fluidly that the performance feels more profound within the atmosphere created by the spoken vocal at the beginning and end. It left in awe, swiftly yearning to hit replay and let it sway me all over again. It would have been perfect if “Environmental Anxiety” didn’t get included, but I can’t harp on it when it isn’t even that bad as the album moves from start to finish without as much of a halt in sonic cohesion.