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In RAYE’s bedroom hangs a poster of Nina Simone. Below the image of the legendary singer-songwriter reads one of her most famous quotes: “An artist’s duty, as far as I’m concerned, is to reflect the times.” Usually, the poster, which hangs in her South London home, served as daily inspiration–something she would quickly glance at on her way to the studio. But in the year 2021, it served as an urgent call to action. “I’ve wanted to come out with a debut album for so long, but my label didn’t let me. I remember sitting in my living, looking at that poster of Nina Simone and being like, ‘What am I doing?’” Label executives told RAYE that she didn’t have the budget to release a solo album–despite the artist earning four Brit Award nominations and penning highly successful tracks for John Legend, Charli XCX, and even Beyoncé (which collectively landed her over one billion streams on Spotify). And while the beats were catchy and the lyrics relatable, RAYE felt like they didn’t adequately represent her experience and what she wanted to say with her music. So later that year, she split with her label and began the process of falling in love with music again. After a few months of sifting through the 700 unrecorded songs on her desktop, RAYE’s debut album, My 21st Century Blues., is finally here. It’s bold, it’s beautiful, and it’s unapologetically her.

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“I knew that I wanted to create a body of work that unveiled my perspective–the shit parts of life that I’d kept in private. I like to think of it as a fragmented mosaic, but I couldn’t be more proud of it,” RAYE shares from a coffee shop in New York City, where we caught her in between two sold-out shows. She’s in town for the announcement of her album, sprinkling the new releases in between the remastered version of her old songs: “Bed,” “Secrets,” and “You Don’t Know Me.” A few weeks after our conversation with the 25-year-old popstar, she released her third track of the album, “Escapism” ft 070 Shake–and within a few weeks, the track went viral on TikTok, skyrocketing to #1 in the United Kingdom.

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RAYE’s new album chronicles her “beautifully ugly journey” in music and elsewhere, documenting her experience with misogyny, sexual assault, and toxic relationships. And while the new work explores themes darker than anything we’ve ever heard from her, it’s not a dreary sob story, but rather a tale of resilience. “I think the lyrical and sonic juxtaposition of the album is important,” RAYE elaborates. “When you put these sad lyrics over that hip-hop groove, it allows me to process my emotions better. I hope, if anything, the album gives people a place to put certain emotions they haven’t talked about before.” And just as she starts a conversation about the common experiences of a young twentysomething, she too pioneers her own path forward. With this debut album, RAYE steps out of the background and into a light of her own.

My 21st Century Blues. is available on all streaming platforms on February 3, 2023.

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