For Raye, there are no longer any ifs, ands, and buts to what she can and can’t do with her career. On Friday, the British-Ghanian singer-songwriter will release My 21st Century Blues, a long-awaited debut from an artist who has co-written standout singles for the likes of Beyoncé, Little Mix, Madison Beer and Charli XCX. It’s also a cathartic starting point for a singer who has long fought for her independence in music.
Her former label pushed her to try every genre under the moon to see what “stuck,” but now Raye — who is an independent artist but signed a distribution deal with The Orchard’s Human Re Sources — is finally making music that feels true to her. She’s over being a “polite pop star.” And put simply, “I’m creatively just so free,” she tells Rolling Stone.
Her stellar LP, anchored by the hit “Escapism” (which topped the charts in the U.K. and sits at 22 on the Hot 100), features some of Raye’s most personal songwriting, and she laces her storytelling with sounds from doo-wop to hip-hop to rap to pop.
There are touches of Amy Winehouse in her vocals, and she’s brutally honest in her lyricism on songs like “Ice Cream Man,” where she fearlessly recounts facing sexual abuse, and “Body Dysmorphia,” where she describes her battle with disordered eating: “XL T-shirts, baggy jeans/so I don’t have to stress about it/Marijuana everyday so I cannot obsess about it.”
She sings about addiction on “Mary Jane,” drags a man on “Flip a Switch,” and shakes ass on “Buss It Down.” There’s something on the album for everyone, though not everything is for everyone — and she likes it that way. “There’ll be songs you might hate and songs you might love,” says Raye, born Rachel Agatha Keen. “It’s a mosaic of different fragmented pieces from the last seven years of my life with no sonic consistency, and no holding back.”
Rolling Stone caught up with Raye to chat about her Mike Sabath-produced album, a future filled with robots (“We’re going to see some wild shit happening in these next couple of years, I’m telling you!”), and how she’s prepping for a tour with Kali Uchis.
The album takes you through a rollercoaster of feelings. What emotions are you feeling now that your album is almost here?
To be honest, it is just outdoing all my expectations. When I was deciding as a young girl that I wanted to be an artist, I envisioned this moment: making an album. It’s just been a long time coming for me and I’m so grateful I’ve finally reached this milestone. I’ll definitely never take this for granted, especially the creative freedom that I have had to put these songs together. I’m thinking of what I’m going to be able to create next and the potential of what I’ll create before I die. I know it’s dramatic. I’m very dramatic, but it’s validating. I just always want to be an albums-based artist. I don’t want to be moved by singles.
Last time we chatted, you said, “I feel like as women we’re often made to feel as if we have to suppress or over-perform in rooms where male supremacy still dominates culture.” Does that quote still resonate with you today?
I’m sitting in a completely different place now: I don’t have to answer to anyone or meet anyone’s requirements or do any somersaults for anyone anymore. I’m in control of my career and I’m really in the thick of that. It’s quite liberating. I just feel safe and I have people who genuinely have my best interest at heart around me, helping me create my visions and contribute to my visions. And it’s just beautiful, honestly. My experience has evolved to be quite different from what it used to be, and I’m really grateful for that.
Let’s dive into these songs, because you really took us through it. What’s that feeling like to finally put these experiences, these feelings, all the things that you’ve faced — body dysmorphia, sexual assault, insecurity, addiction — into a project knowing that is going to be out there?
Some of these songs have helped me process. I had just been needing to hear them in a more beautiful form. Like “Body Dysmorphia,” it sounds so ugly in my head, but when you put it into that song, it makes it a little bit easier for me to digest. A lot of these stories are very medicinal and very raw and therapeutic for me. It makes part of My 21st Century Blues. I think it’s been really important for me to take it there as hard as it’s been sometimes.
Especially with “Ice Cream Man,” in which you sing about being sexually assaulted. I can’t imagine singing about something so difficult. Is releasing this song a big step toward your own healing?
Definitely, in some ways. In other ways, you have to go back there with this type of song. We created a visual for this song, which is the toughest thing I’ve ever filmed. I self-directed it. I only managed to do about three takes in the whole day and I spent most of the day hidden in a small room on my own with a radio.
I just think you do have to go there and it’s both awful and beautiful at the same time, which is how the song makes me feel. And for a song that I wrote so many years ago and I made edits based on my perspective now, it’s just tough. It’s tough, but it’s beautiful and it’s hard to listen to for me sometimes. But sometimes I need to listen to it.
There are so many people that unfortunately are going to relate to that story. How did you find your power in finally singing about something like this?
I think for me, I’ve battled with a lot of things in my life and there’s no rule book on how to process stuff. At the worst of times, it steals from you: your joy, your trust, and your natural warm self. For me, it really took so much for me. Music is just the safest place I feel I can express my truth. I can just be explicit and honest about my perspective on things.
This record really shows different sides of you. One of them is your love for astrology on “Thrill Is Gone,” where you sing “He’s a Leo sun, Leo moon, and a Leo rising.” You should have stayed away from that!
When I discovered that, I was like, “Lord, take me out.” It was wild. [laughs] I’m a Leo Moon, no shade to Leos! But when you’re all three at once and you are just a nightmare… It was just never going to work. I don’t read horoscopes or anything, but I definitely take an interest to a degree. If I know you, I’ll be like, “Oh, what’s your sign?” I wouldn’t go as far as to prejudge someone based on their sign in a negative way.
I feel that way too. I’m a Virgo Sun.
Oh, lovely. I’m a Virgo ascending. Hello.
I love it. I’m a Scorpio rising.
Shit! I’m a Scorpio sun, so we’re like the opposite set! I don’t even know what that means, but that’s cool.
I love that! You said in another interview that 60% of the album is songs that you’ve had from over the years. How did you decide which songs needed to be on this particular record?
The ones that stood the test of time in my head and my heart, and also songs that fit the theme of this album the most intentionally. I think the beautiful thing is when you can still love a song after having it for so long.
You touch on political issues on “Environmental Anxiety,” but you do it in such a way that feels fresh.
As a musician, I feel quite powerless when it comes to anything to do with climate change, politics, and world issues. When we see things happening that we have to step back and be a bystander, I think that does create quite an overwhelming sense of anxiety. I just really wanted to put that feeling into a song. It’s just my perspective as a girl who just feels helpless in changing it. Some days, I believe robots are going to take all our jobs one day.
Have you seen M3GAN?
Not yet, but I’ve seen the trailer. I genuinely think in the future there’ll be so many AIs and stuff that they’ll start to become like real people. Machines with real emotions. There’ll be people who will be horrible to them and some people who will support them and it’s just going to be wild. I think we’ll see AI really integrate with society. That’s just one of my trails of thought. I think the future’s going to be really crazy.
Will you be a welcoming person of the AIs or will you be a person that’s like, “Hell naw”?
I think I’m just going to be pro-it, as long as they’re nice to us. If one of them starts killing us and stuff, then obviously I’m just going to be really scared. [laughs] But hopefully, all AIs are nice and we don’t have I, Robot happen in real life. That would be scary.
There have been these viral videos of AI music. Have you seen that?
It’s hilarious. Actually, I was speaking to David Guetta, who I love a lot. He was showing me one of these robot things you can just type in some words and what you want the song to be, and it will make a song. If people just want to feel good and just hear a catchy lyric again and again, it’s going to thrive, which is really just wild.
Did you see Ariana Grande singing in Spanish to Anitta’s “Envolver”?
I saw that. I saw her singing [SZA’s] “Kill Bill.” I was like, what the fuck? It’s insane. Technology is wild. I’m both excited and terrified for the future. The thing is we don’t even realize how integrated AI already is in our society. There are all these mind trails of where the future’s headed. I could spiral about it for hours.
Are you scared that robots are going to take the jobs of songwriters?
You know what? I’m not scared about that because I just believe songwriting is special when it’s so personal and raw. There’s formulaic songwriting or writing from a perspective of wanting to be the most catchiest song, but then there’s also just songwriting from a personal or medicinal place. And I just think no matter what happens, nothing’s going to be able to take that away. I think people’s stories are beautiful and important. There’ll just be more stories and some stories will be different and written by a robot, which is fine.
I can stand by that. You’re going on tour with Kali Uchis. I imagine you’re excited.
I’m so excited. I am a huge fan of Kali. I just think she’s incredible and I can’t wait to see her show for free every night. I’m so excited to hear her new album. She’s just the kind of artist who just puts art first, which is so inspiring to me. It’s going to be a busy year. I’m going to be singing all year, so I’m going to really have to get my shit together and stop eating cake and really work out!
I’m going to have to flip into athlete mode a little bit, since discipline is definitely one of my weaknesses. I’m good at the creative stuff. I’m not good at being good and sleeping early and eating great and being disciplined.
Is there anything about this album that you haven’t been able to touch on?
If listeners do get the time, I’d love for them to be able to listen in order. That would be so beautiful. I know some of these songs touch on quite sensitive subjects. I don’t want to trigger anyone or anything like that. I just hope that this album can be medicinal in some way for people, or at least help them start conversations with people they love and trust. If they’re dealing with any of these things in silence, talking about it is the best thing that we can do. There’s no rule book on how to feel okay or better, but talking is definitely a great, very important step.