At long last, RAYE is in charge of her artistry. “I feel so free as a creative for the first time,” says the 25-year-old London-born singer-songwriter, who went independent in 2021 following seven years under a record deal with Polydor Records. “It’s probably the happiest I’ve been.”
Now, the growing artist, who has writing credits with Beyoncé, Rosalía and Ellie Goulding, is riding the high of her 2022 hit, “Escapism,” with 070 Shake, which first took off on TikTok and continues to build on the Billboard charts. She has no plans of slowing down, either, and will tour throughout the year in support of her recently released debut album, My 21st Century Blues. “[The album] is a different range of feelings and blues within my perspective as a woman in this day and age,” she explains.
RAYE only ever aspired to be a musician: “Make it work, figure it out” has been her mantra from age 7. Influenced by her musically inclined family — including her Ghanaian-Swiss mother, who sang in church as a child, and her grandfather, a songwriter — she enrolled at South London’s BRIT School, home to alumni such as Amy Winehouse, Adele and FKA twigs. But she dropped out after two years, eager to forge her own path. “I felt like it was important not to be taught how to do ‘that thing,’ ” she says. “It’s something you’ve got to learn with your own voice and own way.”
As a teenager, RAYE would take the train after class to songwriting sessions, often “working with 35-year-old white guys,” she remembers. “It was important to get my skills up.” She self-released her first mixtape in 2014 and signed to Polydor in the United Kingdom soon after. Within a few years, RAYE scored her breakthrough on London producer Jax’s “You Don’t Know Me.” But, she says, some of those early wins were bittersweet. “As soon as the [record] deal was signed, I was ushered down a path sonically that I didn’t necessarily intend for myself.” She tweeted her frustrations in 2021, saying the label wouldn’t let her release an album, and parted ways with Polydor that year to go independent.
In June 2022, RAYE signed with distribution and artist services company Human Re Sources ahead of her long-awaited debut album, My 21st Century Blues. “Escapism,” a standout dance-rap fusion with 070 Shake, arrived in October and became RAYE’s first Billboard Hot 100 hit, reaching a No. 22 high. The song powers the 13-track set, half of which she co-produced. “Some of these topics, my close friends don’t even know about me,” she says, alluding to themes of body dysmorphia, toxic relationships, substance abuse and sexual violence. She began 2023 opening for Lewis Capaldi on his U.K. arena tour and will hit the road with Kali Uchis in April. “I wasn’t gunning for big chart success,” she says. “I was putting out music I love, now that I’m in complete control of my career.”
A version of this story originally appeared in the Feb. 4, 2023, issue of Billboard.