UK-based soul songstress Ray Blk has been a well-respected recording artist for several years, releasing mixtapes, EPs, and excellent singles since 2016. She’s earned plaudits like the best newcomer at the 2016 MOBO Awards and BBC’s Sound of 2017 and has been tapped to open for Nicki Minaj on the rapper’s UK leg of her world tour. But she took her time to put together an LP on a major label, opting to self-release a lot of her music before making her Island bow with the 2018 EP Empress.
After listening to her first full-length studio release, Access Denied, it’s clear that it was worth the wait. After biding her time, the singer has unveiled a gorgeous album of sultry tunes, dreamy vocals, and memorable beats and hooks. It’s a sensual album that belies its modern sheen – the synths warm and inviting instead of icy or robotic.
The album opens with “Blk Madonna”, a great way to introduce Access Denied. It’s a powerful song about empowerment. Though Ray Blk sings about wishing to be the “Black Madonna”, she finds strength in being herself, ruminating that “Everyone would tell me I couldn’t go the distance / Chocolate skin, you don’t fit it in, you’re a statistic.” But she is triumphant, noting that “every time I be on stage, they go ballistic.” Produced by her childhood friend, MNEK, the complex boast track works because though her pride shines through, she also chooses to be emotional, characterizing her success and self-confidence as hard-won and earned.
She returns to similar themes in the lilting “Dark Skinned”, a significant album highlight. On a deceptively simple production of an undulating synth and bass, Ray Blk opens up about struggling with self-worth, drawing potent images of a vulnerable young woman who has lost “count of all the times I had to cry / And dry my tears, pull up my socks, ‘cuz I have to try.” Though victorious, she notes with a weariness that she’s had to “redefine the hurt that made hold my pride”. It’s a moving moment, made all the more stirring because of the naked lyrics in the tune. She never falls into self-pity, nor does she indulge in faux anthematic sloganing. Ray Blk isn’t interested in making a song of empty platitudes or banalities but sharing a raw, open feeling of building self-confidence and swagger in the face of obstacles.
In a record as generous as Access Denied (14 tracks), listeners are gifted with various colors, sounds, and tones. On the bruising “Lovesick”, Ray Blk not only sings with her inimitable alto but includes some savage raps, as she contemptuously dismisses an errant lover. She engages in a spirited duel with UK rapper Giggs on strong “Games” that has echoes of 1990s R&B. Fellow soul innovator Kaash Paige joins her on the excellent, radio-friendly, urban-pop number “MIA”.
Ray Blk shows a brutal sense of humor on the hilarious “Lauren’s Skit”, a profanity-laden interlude that gives voice to an outraged, scorned woman. It would work as a brilliant musical companion to Kelis’ excoriating “Caught Out There”. There isn’t a dud on the album – its high quality is a testament to the meticulous work of Ray Blk and her songwriters and producers who take care to produce tracks that do not feel like filler.
Though much of Access Denied has been buffed to a mainstream sheen, it still maintains an intelligence and originality that makes it stand out among other R&B albums of 2021. What the album shows is even with a major label’s backing and access to high-profile collaborators, Ray Blk remains an individual, someone who can make mainstream soul music that still shows off impressive creativity and ingenuity.