Raye at the Royal Albert Hall: a triumphant pinnacle for one hell of a year

Raye at the Royal Albert Hall (Luke Dyson)
Raye at the Royal Albert Hall (Luke Dyson)

This speaks volumes of the year RAYE’s having: the same night her single Escapism won Best Independent Track at the AIM Awards, she was also headlining the Royal Albert Hall, accompanied by the Heritage Orchestra and 30-piece youth choir Flames Collective. From number one singles to Mercury Prize nominations, the past 12 months have been a wild ride for the South London singer-songwriter born Rachel Keen.

Indeed, since severing ties with Polydor back in July 2021, the 25-year-old has decisively reframed her career, moving from featured vocalist at the mercy of major label A&Rs to an independent artist firmly in control of her own destiny. February’s debut My 21st Century Blues offers a searing account of her path to this point, setting stories of addiction, sexual violence and anxiety to a vivid bricolage of jazz, soul, R&B, hip hop and EDM.

Laying down a live recording of the album for posterity, RAYE was equally unapologetic in speaking her truth last night. The result was an utterly unforgettable performance, every ounce as emotionally raw as it was musically polished.

From the old school Hollywood glitz of Oscar Winning Tears and Twin Peaks-esque jazz of Mary Jane to the sweeping strings powering electronic epic Black Mascara, her songs soared to bold new heights thanks to the epic arrangements of conductor Tom Richards. Encouraged by the spectacular setting, RAYE seized every opportunity to flex her impressive vocal range, moving fluidly between street-smart rhymes and scatted ad-libs, soulful vocal runs and operatic phrasing, while never losing sight of each song’s emotional core.

Between tracks she often added important context to her compositions. Introducing Body Dysmorphia, RAYE spoke movingly about her struggles with body image and self-esteem, and ultimately faced her fears by stripping down to her underwear to perform the track. Meanwhile, a deeply moving performance of Ice Cream Man was prefixed by the statistic that 1 in 4 people will experience sexual assault their lifetime, along with the words, “So I know I’m not alone when I sing this.”

The evening climaxed with a cathartic rendition of Escapism, providing the perfect demonstration of RAYE’s ability to find strength in extreme vulnerability. “Thank you for joining me tonight for a life highlight,” Raye had told fans at the very start of the set. But, honestly, the pleasure was all ours.