Waiting In Line: Will RAYE Steal The Pop Spotlight In 2021?

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“This young lady with @DavidGuetta has a great voice. Who is she?” tweeted Dionne Warwick earlier this month, while watching New Year’s Eve on FOX. The ‘young lady’ in question—singing Sia’s part on Guetta’s single ‘Let’s Love’—was London-born singer-songwriter RAYE.

On paper, RAYE needs no introduction. She is the voice behind some of your favourite earworms of the last few years: ‘You Don’t Know Me’ with Jax Jones, ‘By Your Side’ with Jonas Blue and ‘Secrets’ with Regard, to name a few. She is the pen behind many more, having written for the likes of Little Mix, Ellie Goulding, John Legend and Queen B herself, Beyoncé. 

For someone who has just turned 23, this alone is an astronomical achievement. Alongside her collaborations, she has swiftly built an impressive discography of solo material, stretching across the realms of woozy R&B to no-strings pop. And yet, for many, the question remains: who is RAYE?

“I don’t understand how she has not got more hype than she has,” says Ella Ross, a 17-year-old student from Buckinghamshire and RAYE fan of nearly three years. Ross became an avid supporter of RAYE’s music in 2018, after booking to see her in concert on a whim. “As soon as I booked a ticket I thought OK, let me actually listen to her music, and realised that actually I’d actually listened to most of it already,” she says. “I guess you could say I was already a fan.” Ross has seen her live eight times since. 

Like many others, Ross knew the voice and the songs before she knew the person behind them. ‘You Don’t Know Me’ was a ubiquitous hit, the 10th biggest in the UK in 2017. ‘Sixteen’, written by RAYE for Ellie Goulding in 2019, is edging towards 250 million streams on Spotify. Her collaborative work is a commercial success—can this now translate into chiselling out an identity as a solo artist?

RAYE hopes so. In November, she released Euphoric Sad Songs, her first ‘mini album’, having released four EPs since 2014. The nine-track project is a collection of solid pop songs detailing the “nine stages of grief” after heartbreak, and her first real attempt at aiming for the dizzying heights of solo stardom. In an interview with MuuMuse after the project’s release, she expressed her desire to become a ‘huge’ artist.

Freelance music journalist George Griffiths, who has written for the Official Charts and NME, thinks the mini album is a stepping-stone in widening the musician’s audience and reaching her ambition. “I think Euphoric Sad Songs is a big step in a longer goal to flesh out who RAYE is as a person,” he says. ‘Love Of Your Life’, the project’s fifth single, is an undeniable standout. “[It] sounded like a song that a lot of people could sing, but none of them could do a better job than RAYE,” Griffiths says. “I think she’s coming into her own a lot more now.”

For an artist like RAYE, “coming into her own” couldn’t be more important. Her collaborations have undoubtedly helped put her on the map, but lending vocals to an endless stream of dance hits can muddy the waters when trying to build a solo career.

The trend of pairing ‘up-and-coming’ artists with DJs for hedonistic, mainstream tracks in the hope of a quick commercial win, or to lay the foundations for new pop artists to crack commercial airwaves, is hardly a new one. It can be seen most successfully in action in the early 2010s, shaping careers for artists like Rita Ora with ‘Hot Right Now’ and Jess Glynne with ‘Rather Be’.

The strategy was “effective in the post X Factor years”, Griffiths says, but in an age where streaming accounts for more than 80% of the UK’s music consumption, the efficiency has waned.

It is still an easy way to rack up streams—RAYE received 370 million Spotify streams in 2020, her collaborations being most popular—but does it have the same effect in terms of building an artist’s solo profile, when new music is more accessible and churned out quicker than ever before? 

Sabrina Gianni, a 23-year old RAYE fan and hospital ward hostess, thinks RAYE’s large pool of collaborative tracks helps expand her reach. “When she collaborates with more artists, that’s opening more doors for her, more people will know her,” she says.

However, she says a common fan frustration is that radio presenters often omit RAYE when playing her collaborations, instead naming only the male DJs.

“When she gets the radio play, they don’t mention her name, so how are people supposed to know her? She’s the one that’s singing the song, so her name should be mentioned,” Gianni says.

While RAYE has previously said she ‘adores’ collaborations, she has also implied frustration at not being credited as a lead artist on her collaborative tracks. Speaking to Notion Magazine in November about her song ‘Secrets’ with DJ Regard, on which she shares joint credit, she said: “…he let me put ‘and Raye’ [instead of ‘featuring Raye’], which means the streams are shared. It means it’s our track, it means I’m a lead artist. And, that is the energy. This is not shade, but this is me talking confidently about what I believe is right.”

With artistic outputs sidelined, moulding a distinctive ‘brand’ is all the more difficult. The continuous streaming boom—with audio streams up by more than a fifth in 2020 compared to 2019, according to the BPI—has seen artists throwing everything against the wall just to see what sticks. Navigating the market for solo success has never been trickier, then. “It’s very difficult to carve out an identity I think, when streaming necessitates you have to release something every few weeks,” Griffiths says.

It’s not just the influence of streaming to consider, either. Artists now don’t sell themselves through music alone: they must do so on social media, too. A 2018 MusicWatch study found that two in three people use social media to find new music, and that was before social networking behemoth TikTok turned the industry on its head.

Read more: What impact will TikTok have on the 2021 music charts?

“Every conversation with my label the past year has been: “What are you going to do on TikTok?””, singer-songwriter Decklan McKenna told The Guardian in December. Rina Sawayama said that some artists create music with the intention of finding “a little drop, a little funny moment”, specifically for TikTok, aware of how the app is impacting the industry.

Think of Jason Derulo’s ‘Savage Love’ or Doja Cat’s ‘Say So’: both were global smashes, largely down to the TikTok dance trends that accompanied them. It is clear that RAYE, or her label Polydor, is trying to capitalise on TikTok’s burgeoning influence, too; last year, her song ‘Natalie Don’t’ received a specific ‘TikTok lyric video’ treatment, complete with suggested dance moves.

Taking centre stage in the pop music scene has never been a simple sum of the right music plus the right image, but it has also never been as intricate as it is now. 

RAYE’s fans remain hopeful that 2021 could be the year that she finally gets the recognition—not just the streams—that she deserves. “People don’t realise the grind that this woman has. She’s doing everything she can but it’s down to these radio stations, her label—they need to promote her more. Say her name more,” says Gianni.

One thing is certain: RAYE’s 2020 solo releases were some of her most self-assured, polished releases so far. ‘Natalie Don’t’ is a delicious slice of Dolly Parton-inspired drama, while deeper cuts like ‘Change Your Mind’, with its lyrics crafted from texts RAYE sent to an ex, flaunt her knack for wistful, dancing-at-the-discotheque pop. 

The 2021 landscape for musicians is still precarious, with little certainty around whether live music will return, or how TikTok will continue to shape the way artists can promote their projects.

RAYE seems to be getting the hang of the latter, though: one of her most recent TikTok videos, which shows her getting a COVID-19 test, is soundtracked by her latest single, ‘Regardless’. The track is now sitting just outside the iTunes top 10. It feels like a breakthrough into superstardom is inevitable. 

@raye

Another day, another covid test ✅😷 up the nose feels the worst 🙃#fyp

♬ Regardless – RAYE & Rudimental

“It’s coming. She’s literally almost there, you can see it,” Ross says. “When it does happen, she’s going to skyrocket immediately.”

Dionne Warwick may only just be finding out who RAYE is, but for her supporters, this appreciation has been a long time coming. As one fan on YouTube puts it: “One day she will be huge and she won’t be our little secret guys.”

Words by Marcus Wratten


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