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Raye’s First Album Was About Making Ugly Thoughts ‘Sound Beautiful’

Photo: Joseph Okpako/WireImage

One of pop music’s great recent vindication stories begins with a 14-year-old named Rachel Keen, a prodigious singer-songwriter from South London who performs under the name Raye.

Raye mixes with the right crowd, makes music with a pre-fame Stormzy, and begins writing songs for others including Charli XCX and Beyoncé. She soon releases an EP of her own, which catches the attention of Polydor, which signs her to a four-album deal. But the albums never materialize. So she becomes something of a session singer, a vehicle for some of the world’s biggest DJs and their most chart-baiting songs, before fading into pop anonymity. Then, years later, Raye finally speaks up.

Toward the end of 2021, Raye posts several tweets detailing exploitation at the hands of her label. She eventually splits from Polydor, goes independent, and releases “Escapism,” a song about nighttime hedonism and unsustainable self-medication. It quickly goes viral on TikTok via a fan-made, sped-up remix and hits No. 1 on the U.K. charts. A few months later, My 21st Century Blues, her long-awaited first album, finally arrives.

On Blues, the 25-year-old singer presents a distinct and immersive world, one that recalls the days when the album format was queen. It details all the subjects Raye is least practiced in speaking about: her assaults, her substance abuse, her body dysmorphia. It’s also the sound of her on her high-horse: five-star stays in Mauritius, the world at her fingertips. But you don’t begrudge her for it. You end the record, which took well over a decade to come into existence, with the faith that Raye is about to have everything she’s ever deserved.

The singer spoke with Vulture about the experience of releasing her first full-length project on her terms, the decision to call her former label out publicly, and what she has planned next.

It’s been interesting seeing the rise of “Escapism” alongside the fan-made, sped-up version. Do you ever factor in a song’s potential for slowed-down and sped-up versions in the studio now that they’ve become so popular?
I definitely don’t consider them during the creation process. Hearing the same song slightly faster or slower doesn’t offend me; if anything, it allows you to feel the song in a different way. It’s flattering that there was one fan who created the first sped-up version, and it was the version everyone made videos to, and it started to catch a lot of traction. I messaged that fan to say, “Thank you.” We’re in a society where people are gonna do what they want and hear music the way they wanna hear it. Maybe they’re just moving quick in life and need to hear the lyrics faster.

I was very moved watching that video of you crying as you were handed your trophy for “Escapism” going No. 1 in the U.K. What emotions were you feeling in that moment?
Aw. I just think the past ten years flooded and flashed before my eyes. You know, how much creatives have to give and how much I had to sacrifice, how lost I was at the hardest of times, how many lies I’d been told. It was a moment of, Wow, never did I think I’d be holding a trophy like that, let alone everything it took for that moment to happen.

Going back to those tweets you wrote last year about Polydor, I’m curious to know whether you consulted any other artists before posting them? 
I didn’t consult anybody before. A lot of conversations were had after. A lot of artists reached out — I won’t name names — expressing the same struggles. It was clear there was a through-line in the things I was feeling and had been experiencing for so long. Unfortunately, for a lot of artists, it’s just kind of a given, something you learn to deal with.

There’s currently this broader reckoning with major labels and their mistreatment of artists. Do you think this will be an ongoing trend and result in more artists leaving their label in order to go independent?
I guess I don’t know because contracts are airtight; they’re serious things. Sometimes the choice won’t even be there. I think we’re definitely in a different age where it’s harder to force-feed music down people’s throats, which was essentially the job of a record label. Now there’s more power to independent artists and artists who don’t have a huge financial backing to get their music out to more ears. The requirement for these huge infrastructures is decreasing. I hope for the future of musicians that artists see that you don’t have to be with a major label to have a career in music. I think that’ll be an exciting thing for up-and-coming artists to realize. Their power is in their creative freedom.

My 21st Century Blues begs to be listened to in full. Do you have faith in your listener to pay the album the attention it deserves?
I don’t know. At the end of the day, I guess it’s down to the individual and how they wanna consume this body of work, whether they consume it at all. For me, albums are so important. There is that nostalgia for when you’d sit down, close your eyes, and listen to an album in full. I know, for a lot of people out there, they don’t have time for an album. But there are also a lot of people who do, who love digesting thick and full bodies of work. I would love to tap into those people who appreciate those details. The album format itself is beautiful. It’s important. It’s special. It’s like a short film from an artist to a listener. I’m just excited that this is my first one. I’ve created my own album the way I wanted to create it.

You’re really putting yourself out there on this album. It sounds like you really want to be known.
It’s deep, innit? [Laughs.] It is definitely very raw and open. To be honest, it’s just my nature as a human being. With the people I cross paths with and share relationships with, I say it how it is. It’s also a very medicinal album. A lot of the stuff I discuss on here has just lived isolated in my head for a long time. In music, I’m able to make something so ugly in my head sound somewhat beautiful. I think that’s half the intention of this album, just getting stuff off my chest and being loud and open and honest about how I feel when it comes to things I’ve been scared to talk about in the past.

Do you think exploring these darker themes was also a reaction to the peppy, dance-floor-ready songs you’d previously been typecast in?
Yeah, I think the overall through-line in this is honesty. I just wanted to be on the nose about everything I’ve experienced instead of just vaguely describing it through metaphors. I was living in this dance-poppy “Everything’s great” kind of thing, and I had to have that energy wherever I went when I was promoting those records, singing them. But that’s just not honest. That’s the biggest thing for me as an artist: I want to be honest no matter how tough or ugly that might be.

Do you have material for a second album?
Yes, I’m working on stuff already. This first album is a collation of songs I’ve created across my life, mosaic puzzle pieces from the past seven years. I’m really excited to see what it’s like to create an album entirely from this free “anything is possible” mentality that I have now. There are no rules. That’s my favorite phrase.

What is the goal now? Where would you like to be in, say, two years’ time? 
In two years, I would love to be releasing my second album. I want to step up a level. I want to tell stories not just from my perspective but from others’ as well. I want to make sure that I never get carried away with the wrong intentions or mind-set. I don’t want to create with the intention to sell.

This interview was edited and condensed.

Raye Wanted to Make Her Ugly Thoughts ‘Sound Beautiful’