By now, RAYE’s story of major label frustration is well known. Those tales don’t often end up with a happy ending – but with a debut album and a chart busting single on deck, this isn’t just your average pop star either.
Words: Abigail Firth.
Raye has one of the most triumphant pop star redemption stories out there. She’s about to release her debut album, ‘My 21st Century Blues’, almost a decade after initially getting signed to a major label, but they have no part in her career anymore.
Almost suffocating under the pressure to replicate her first smash single, the 2016 collaboration with Jax Jones, ‘You Don’t Know Me’, Raye finally broke free from her oppressive contract with Polydor Records in 2021, and in a magnificent plot twist, has been chasing her first Number 1 single, ‘Escapism’, completely independently.
There’s surely no better “fuck you” to the label that didn’t believe in Raye’s diversion from dance pop than sitting at Number 6 in the Christmas charts, knowing the only tracks ahead of you are Ladbaby’s annual Christmas charity number, two Christmas classics from Wham! and Mariah, Ed and Elton’s Christmas tune, and a novelty single from YouTube-dominating collective Sidemen.
Chatting just a week before the official Christmas Number 1 is announced, an obvious congratulations is in order for Raye and the runaway success of ‘Escapism’.
“It’s nuts, isn’t it?” says Raye. “It still doesn’t feel entirely real. To be honest, it’s really lovely to have this happen in a situation where I decided what I thought was best for myself. And you know, I think it just proves that you don’t need a major label to have some success.”
She’s a little croaky when we call, but mentions the show must go on. Now an independent artist, the workload is overwhelming but ultimately worth it for the freedom. “It’s hardcore. It’s brilliant, but it’s hardcore,” she says. “I thought I worked hard before, but yeah, social life? What social life? But this is what I’ve always wanted, just to be a woman able to say whatever she wants to say, when she wants to say it.”
“You don’t need a major label to have some success”RAYE
Back in 2014, Raye signed a four-album deal with Polydor, but by 2021, not a single one of them had been made. Taking her frustrations to Twitter in June of that year, she asked followers to imagine her pain, noting she was giving songs away to A-list artists and awaiting confirmation she’s good enough to release an album on her own. The pressure of having another hit single was getting to her, and she repeatedly found herself relegated to being a featured artist on various European DJs’ club tracks, charting at Number 6 in 2020 with Regard’s ‘Secrets’ and Number 3 in 2021 with Joel Corry and David Guetta’s ‘Bed’.
When she released ‘Call On Me’ in 2021, a track that would become her last release with Polydor, she was told she could make her debut album if it performed well. When it didn’t crack the Top 40, she was over it.
“I didn’t even love that song; I didn’t even want to put it out. But because it didn’t do the numbers they wanted, I hadn’t earned the right to do an album still. I was like, I would rather just be a songwriter than go through this anymore, having to try to sell music I’m not even proud of. It’s just sad.”
Upon publicising her label struggles, Raye received support from artists like Charli XCX, MNEK, and Rina Sawayama, and shortly after, was released from the record deal.
“I took it publicly because I just assumed they’d shelved me or something. I had nothing to lose, and then went on the internet and people heard me and helped me amplify my message, which I didn’t expect at all. But what it did is give me a position of power that I didn’t have before. Before I had zero leverage, I had nothing. I had no grounds, and then after that, I was able to use that power to take control of my life in my situation.”
A year after splitting with the label, she released ‘Hard Out Here’, a scathing dark pop track that’s deliberately uncomfortable as she takes her old bosses head-on. “This LP’s full of the shit I’m gonna say to you,” she promises in its breakdown. It’s a purposely sharp turn from the dance bangers she’d spent most of her career releasing and an immediate indication of what she’s capable of. Ushering in her new era with a track as outspoken as she is, releasing it independently wasn’t entirely intentional.
“My dad’s my manager, and he went to hear out anyone that wanted to be part of the next chapter for me. It was so funny because people heard this new music and it was a very negative energy towards it. Sort of like, ‘Oh, this is obviously something Raye needs to get out of her system, but when she’s done with that, then she can talk to us’. I just don’t understand why there’s such a fear to let a woman dictate or be in control of her career. I genuinely didn’t have a choice but to go independent.”
She hasn’t let go of her EDM hits though, she’s just doing them in her own way. On the next single ‘Black Mascara’, she twists a club beat into a track about getting spiked by someone she was close to. Then came ‘Escapism’ the unlikely smash that went from TikTok to Top 10 in a matter of weeks. It’s a sprawling pop odyssey that details a night out after a breakup, where Raye slowly spirals further into drug-fuelled self-destruction, four minutes of straight bars punctuated by a delicate chorus vocal and a hazy verse from 070 Shake. It’s deservedly her highest-charting song yet.
‘My 21st Century Blues’ is Raye’s most direct work by a mile. Tackling some deeply personal subjects on both the singles and the deeper cuts, overcoming adversity is the common thread, even if she feels like the record is a sonic scramble. The album’s centrepiece, ‘Ice Cream Man’, is an emotional ballad telling the story of an assault she experienced, whereas ‘Mary Jane’ discusses the drug and alcohol abuse she partook in to get through particularly difficult years. In the record’s second half, there’s ‘Body Dysmorphia’ and ‘Environmental Anxiety’ back to back, which are topically, exactly how they sound.
“I do believe the most powerful art translated is honest, right?” she explains. “I think it’s easy to digress emotion through metaphors and disguising it a bit more, but I’m just not like that. To be honest, the essence of who I am and who I get to be now that I am in control is like an open book; I’m what it says on the tin.”
Raye continues, “As vulnerable as that makes me, especially in something like ‘Ice Cream Man’, it means that, at the very least, that’s my powerful moment. It’s me screaming down a microphone, amplified for anyone that will listen to it on this album, for the individual people who even caused me to write that song to know you’re so flipping lucky, and hear this song, and let it squeeze the joy out of you, and never ever, ever lay hands on a woman like that ever again in your life. So despite the fear attached to things, there’s an overwhelming sense of strength that leads throughout.”
‘My 21st Century Blues’ demonstrates Raye’s versatility like nothing else she’s ever released. She’s just as at home on the dark pop of the singles as she is on the UK R&B of ‘Flip a Switch’ and ‘Five Star Hotels’ (that’s where her roots are after all). Then there’s the funkier ‘Worth It’, and gospel-infused ‘Buss It Down’, as well as ‘The Thrill Is Gone’, a nod to BB King that feels like an early Amy Winehouse track.
“I thought I worked hard before, but yeah – social life? What social life?”RAYE
“A lot of the songs have stood the test of time, like ‘Oscar Winning Tears’, ‘Worth It’, and ‘Ice Cream Man’ [are] songs I’ve loved for years and years, literally, and I’m just so happy that they’re actually going to be seeing the light of day. I’m just very proud of this body of work. I know it’s a bit disjointed, and there’s no sonic through-line, but it’s my little mosaic of stories I collected, and I want to share.”
Even though her own label battle is won, she’s still fighting the good fight, this time demanding more rights for songwriters, at the very least, a royalty point. She’s passionate in how she explains the royalties system to us (which she says is the main source of income on a record), that every song has 100 royalty points, the artist receiving 15-20, who then pass four onto the producer, and the label takes the rest, leaving none for the writer. Clearly frustrated about this from her own experiences as both an artist and a songwriter for others (including for Charli XCX, Little Mix and Beyoncé, no less), she explains: “I’ve been screaming about this from the rooftops. I’m going to be screaming about this until it changes. You’ve got songwriters fighting over scraps of publishing, which is like radio play and stuff like that, but they aren’t getting a share of royalty points, which is streams, which is hard sales. They get paid if it gets played on the radio or a sync; they get a small outright fee. It’s wrong.
“You know what’s crazy, though? I’m trying to make noise and make a song a dance about this, but I’m literally being gaslit from the inside. It is hilarious. Like, ‘Who does Raye think she is? Raye hasn’t had a hit in so long; she can talk about songwriters rights when she gets a hit’. You hear what everyone says. I’m being gaslit by the white men sat behind their desk, from the inside, thinking that you can hold the reins on treating creators without the respect they deserve. So I’m going to be annoying as fuck until I see change; it’s disgusting.”
But as the tide turns for Raye, we ask, does she think the people who never saw her potential before are regretting letting it go?
“I have concrete evidence that they do. You know, it’s not because of the content; it’s because of the success I’m having of late. But you heard the songs before they blew up! You know what I mean; it’s no excuse, really. But that for me is just really humbling, and I’m really grateful that I even got an opportunity to feel that because I wasn’t expecting to even be in this opportunity at this point in my life, to be sitting in a position of power.”
After years of being silenced, Raye is finally speaking her truth. Her career is in her own hands, and she’s carrying it to the top herself. Even adding the word ‘my’ to the album’s title seems sort of poignant – the record is hers, finally. A young version of Raye on the cover climbs over piles of equipment, crushing the men who held her back underneath. For someone who doesn’t do metaphors, it’s certainly ironic now she’s had the last laugh.
“One of the trickiest things in my life process is that I’m a so-called identity crisis, which has sadly been drilled into me for a long time because of how I create music and how I am as a person. When you dig deeper into it, like, I’m not even from one country, I’m a mixed heritage, I have so many different cultures in me. I’ve always been told, ‘you don’t know who you are; you need to choose something; you’re confusing everyone’. Those narratives are tired, but those narratives really hurt me, and I just hope that this album can prove those narratives wrong.” ■
Taken from the February 2023 edition of Dork. Raye’s album ‘My 21st Century Blues’ is out 3rd February.