My 21st Century Blues is the debut record that should have been released years ago. In June 2021, Rachel Keen took to Twitter to reveal her four-album deal with Polydor had yet to bear a single album, despite being signed for nearly seven years. After years of drip-bleeding single after single and undergoing multiple traumatic events, RAYE has finally jumped at the chance to release her debut album – but perhaps too hurriedly.
The biggest weapon RAYE wields on her debut is her undeniable talent. ‘Oscar Winning Tears.’ has runs that simmer with tooth-kissed sass, and belts so effortlessly impassioned they put 80% of modern popstars to shame. Meanwhile, ‘Hard Out Here.’ sees RAYE deliver a powerful verse with the rage and sorrow of a fresh war veteran:
“What you know about systems?/About drugged drinks, fucking nearly dying from addictions/You start to wonder why I’m Christian/Without the Lord, I’d take my life for all the times I’ve been a victim”
Years of being forced to switch genres has also gifted RAYE the artistic versatility to create an astounding compendium of pop songwriting. Number 1 hit ‘Escapism.’ and its mean trip-hop instrumentals hits even harder in the tracklist; ‘The Thrill Is Gone.’ resurrects classic blues guitars and funk shuffles as she narrates the hare-brained chase for an uninterested lover.
Midway through, RAYE throws a curveball that becomes the most harrowing tale on the album: ‘Ice Cream Man.’ is a sombre retelling of the sexual assault she’s had to endure. An understated instrumental lets RAYE enunciate her words painfully clearly, culminating in the chorus: “I’m a very fucking brave strong woman/And I’ll be damned if I let men ruin/How I walk, how I talk, how I do it.”
Though the first half is laser-focused, the second half has so many moments of tonal whiplash it’s difficult to understand what RAYE’s trying to achieve. One moment, she’s asserting her swagger on Afrobeats-tinged ‘Flip a Switch’; the next, she’s talking about her struggles with body dysmorphia. ‘Environmental Anxiety’, the worst offender in the tracklist, sees RAYE attempting to connect multiple big issues as coping mechanisms for environmental anxiety. Instead, the verse pinballs frenetically from one societal woe to another, soundtracked by a sample disturbingly similar to Crazy Frog.
Approaching the end of ‘My 21st Century Blues’ leaves little clarification for what RAYE’s trying to say. ‘Five Star Hotels’ and ‘Worth It’ are sultry, if generic pop songs that confuse the emotional moments of the first half. Whilst there’s good-natured humour in ‘Buss It Down’ and its extraverted gospel approach to sexual empowerment, it’s such a whirlwind of messaging that it mars the album’s narrative journey.
RAYE’s vulnerability deserves all the five-star ratings in the world; she’s gone above and beyond what any popstar should be expected to endure and expose. But there seems to be a discordant discrepancy between older songs RAYE wanted to release and songs written specifically for ‘My 21st Century Blues’. In her haste to tell her story, ‘My 21stCentury Blues’ suffers from a frenzied second half that cushions the gut-punch it could have been.
Words: Alex Rigotti