My 21st Century Blues review | What the pop industry needs right now

★★★★☆ Raye's new style and album are hard-hitting and political, to say the least. Peppered with London vernacular, the independent popstar borrows neatly from Lily Allen and Amy Winehouse. Here's our My 21st Century Blues review.

Raye My 21st Century Blues review


You’ve probably already heard of Raye: her defiant single ‘Escapism.’ shot up to number 1 in the Official Singles Charts at the start of this year – three months after its original release. Yet her debut album, My 21st Century Blues, is only just stepping out (this Friday) to put Raye firmly on the map after literally years in production.

Anyone following Raye will be familiar with the ins and outs of her controversial rise to number 1. In 2014 Raye signed a 4 album deal with Polydor. But despite the label’s willingness to get Raye into the charts (releasing several successful EPs), they resolutely held back the release of an album: a situation that Raye publicly brought to an end back in 2021. After teaching herself production over lockdown, she went independent (and announced it on Twitter), working with distribution label Human Re Sources to get her album into the world.

The question on everybody’s lips now is: does it live up to the hype? The answer, in a word, is yes; but it’s not an unqualified affirmative. In one of the Twitter posts that publicised her separation from Polydor, Raye wrote: ‘I’ve done everything they asked me, I switched genres […] ask anyone in the music game, they know’. That genre-switching is written all over My 21st Century Blues – a fact that exposes her obvious talent and versatility while also resulting in an album in which the centre doesn’t quite hold.

raye my 21st century blues review album cover

The big singles that you’ve already heard – ‘Hard Out Here.’, ‘Black Mascara’. and ‘Escapism.’ – are still the strongest tracks (‘pure bangers’ in Raye’s own, accurate words) and shine even more brightly in the album’s context. Dirty beats create the perfect backdrop to Raye’s raw lyrics in these next-gen club anthems. Emerging explicitly out of a toxic #MeToo climate, not one word feels throwaway in her best songs, which tread a thoughtful line between victimhood and empowerment. ‘Cause I’m a woman’, she sings in ‘Ice Cream Man.’, her achingly honest account of sexual exploitation, ‘I’m a very fucking brave, strong woman’.

Elsewhere, her lyrics are angrier: ‘All the white men CEOs, fuck your privilege / Get your pink chubby hands off my mouth, fuck you think this is?’ she spits in ‘Hard Out Here.’ – a track that shares its title with Lily Allen’s 2014 attack on the patriarchy. For the most part, Raye is more brutal and less frivolous than her London predecessor (Raye is actually from Croydon; Allen only sounds like she is – in fact, she grew up in Hammersmith and attended public schools) – but there are tracks on the album that have the whiff of Allen’s sweet-voiced, London vernacular.

I’m thinking of ‘Environmental Anxiety.’, the album’s weakest track, which overlays an old-school jungle beat with Allen-style vocals that attempt to grapple with the world’s social and environmental ills in a way that feels, frankly, a little cringe-worthy (‘the rich get rich, and the rest get / Classist, sexist, racist, ableist, fascist, ageist, homophobic’).

And here is where that multi-genre approach becomes more vice than virtue. For all the hard-hitting, personal, and genuinely fresh-sounding tracks, the album tips into a hodgepodge of styles (R&B, funk, grime, jungle, pop), which are occasionally haunted by mid-00s ghosts: spot the Amy Winehouse X Mark Ronson vibes on ‘The Thrill is Gone.’ and the Rihanna-esque reggae strains on ‘Flip a Switch.’.

There’s even something vaguely Adele-ish about the album’s cinematic opening track, ‘Oscar Winning Tears.’ – though, for the most part, Raye’s songs (and especially their provocative lyrics) are still stronger than most of the earlier pop tracks they emulate. If she can shake off the genre-switching that the big labels have encouraged, Raye might be exactly what the pop industry needs right now: ‘a very fucking brave strong woman’.

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