Those who can’t see past Taylor Swift, RAYE is the new writing genius

KARACHI:

In the competitive world of pop music, it’s easy to be distracted by the spectacle. Yet, behind the neon lights and flashy performances, a true queen of lyrics reigns supreme, albeit quietly. Enter RAYE, the singer-songwriter and lyricist who won me over during a late-night viewing of the BRIT Awards. I expected to be cheering for the basics: Harry Styles, Dua Lipa — you know the kind I mean. What I didn’t expect was becoming a fan of a South London artist who, while a blubbering mess, pulled her grandmother on to the stage to accept not just one or two, but six of the night’s biggest awards.

Born Rachel Keen, RAYE’s journey in the music industry was a far cry from straightforward. She released her debut album, My 21st Century Blues, in February last year. The record, a seamless blend of self-written pop, R&B, and doo-wop inspired by her Ghanaian background, put her on the map. The autobiographical gem earned her those same six BRIT Awards a year later.

The album’s release was no easy feat; it came after a hostile split from her record label Polydor, who allegedly balked at releasing it. Going indie proved a savvy move when the album’s single, Escapism went viral on TikTok, finally landing RAYE on the Billboard Hot 100 for the first time.

Unseen, unheard, unveiled

Before the Genesis singer’s own chance in the spotlight, she was the unseen architect behind numerous chart-toppers. It remains unknown by many — almost all — that she wrote the music and lyrics for some of the biggest hits, including those credited to the likes of Beyoncé, Rihanna and John Legend.

Her lyrical craft has silently been the backbone of many a pop anthem, but for too long, her talent has begged for space in the footnotes, overlooked by an industry that didn’t yet recognise her as the force that she is. Her songs often echo these same struggles with rejection and feelings of inadequacy as an artist, which led her down a path of drug and alcohol abuse, a reoccurring theme in her record.

A lyrical activist

Boasting an impressive track-list, My 21st Century Blues is more than just a collection of 15 well-written songs, it’s a form of activism. In Environmental Anxiety RAYE tackles the issue of climate change and a failing society with striking urgency. The lyrics read, “All the children are depressed Not the future we had hoped Little girls unsafe at home She’s scrolling up and down her phone She hates her life, she hates herself And she’s 12-years-old.”

In Ice Cream Man she bares all as she tells a chilling story of trauma and survival. The stark lyrics, “Coming like the ice cream man ‘Till I felt his ice-cold hands Your fingerprints stuck a stain on my skin You made me frame myself for your sins You pathetic, dead excuse of a man,” paint a vivid picture of her experience as a survivor of abuse, making it impossible not to feel the weight of her words.

RAYE’s lyrics make for live performances that are cathartic experiences. During a performance at the Royal Albert Hall, she stripped down to her underwear while singing Body Dysmorphia, a powerful act that brought the audience to tears. She sang, “Lately I’ve been thinking ‘Bout the ways to rearrange my face I wanna cut pieces off Looking at the mirror Want to take a pair of scissors.” For those who have already discovered the master lyricist, these songs have quickly become anthems for those who are victims, struggle with self-image issues, or even the ones who face crippling anxiety thinking about the future of our planet.

The Swift of it all

Comparisons to Taylor Swift are inevitable, given her presence as a towering shadow in the music industry and her reputation as a “tortured poet”. Taylor’s ability to turn personal experiences into universal anthems is undeniable, but RAYE’s lyricism ventures into uncharted territories with a rawness and vulnerability that sets her apart.

Taylor’s songs often revolve around love and heartbreak, wrapped in a pretty bow that ties together her need to preserve her “good girl” image. RAYE, on the other hand, does not shy away from the uglier aspects of life. Her lyrics are unabashedly candid and written with an uncensored pen. While the Love Story singer’s lyrics can sometimes feel like a well-crafted diary entry where every “i” is dotted with a heart, RAYE’s words are akin to unfiltered pages ripped from a journal, scribbled and unedited. So, as conflicted as I am as a Swiftie, it may be time for Taylor to hand over the crown so that the world may witness the rise of another lyric queen.

 

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