It’s a little bit tricky to define exactly what makes Ray BLK’s debut album (or “latest project”, depending on who you ask) Empress so impressive, because really, there is nothing here that hasn’t been done before. Ray BLK is the alter-ego of one Rita Ekwere, and Ekwere has put together a collection of mostly mid-tempo R&B tracks that hearken back to late ’90s standbys like Monica, TLC, and even Toni Braxton. Ekwere’s voice doesn’t stand out in any flashy or virtuosic ways, and the production behind her rarely draws attention. None of these tracks is the type of home run that will draw in grandmothers and schoolchildren alike, at least on first listen; none of these tracks are destined for pop crossover success.
Rather, it is in the absence of attention-grabbing tricks and flashy stunts that Ray BLK shines. Empress is eight perfect tracks: expertly crafted, skillfully sung, and rewarding to listen to over, and over, and over again. There is nothing fancy going on here, just R&B done exactly the way you would hope R&B would sound.
There is a theme running through much of Empress, easily discerned from the title. More than half of Empress is dedicated to or from the point of view of a strong, independent, empowered woman. “Got My Own” serves as something of a mission statement, implicitly recalling Destiny’s Child’s classic “Independent Women” while explicitly nodding to Jennifer Lopez: “I’m Jenny from the block / Now Jenny got a lot / Don’t need anybody’s money / Say you got dough / Bitch I got more,” she sings, warding off potential suitors who might think that the road to her heart is paved with diamonds and gold.
“Girl Like Me” continues the empowered approach, using a little head fake to make its point: Ekwere begins the song describing a potential romantic interest, singing “Six foot two with hypnotizing brown eyes / And your swagger, yeah it’s flawless”, but quickly turns the camera to herself by the time the chorus comes around. When she sings “A girl like me, only one in a million / If you treat me like I ain’t, trust me I could get a new one”, she’s easy to believe. Her confidence here, her sense of self-worth, is impossible to deny.
The title track offers another tale of waiting for someone worthy, only instead of shouting it from the rooftops, Ekwere quietly details what she won’t go for over a simple acoustic guitar line. “Mama” is a beautiful story of her mother, a single mom who pushed her daughter to greatness (“Pressure leave a person cracked up like a ’80s kid / She was single holding me down / Even though my dad weren’t around”). “Don’t Beg” is a proper kiss-off to a relationship that didn’t work. Every one of these five tracks is uniformly brilliant, each a tuneful, hip-hop-tinged stunner that builds on what came before it.
Even when Ray BLK gets away from the thesis of Empress a bit, she does so with stunning results. “Run Run” is an extremely 2018 advice column’s worth of encouragement directed at young black men to stay on the straight and narrow, not for any idealistic reasons so much as a practical one: If the police show up, you’re liable to get shot (“What you gonna do? What you gonna say? Where you gonna hide when you see those flashing lights?”). “Paradise” is an ode to the afterlife that doesn’t leave much of an impression lyrically, but whose production does most of the heavy lifting, all synth twinkles, and syncopated keyboards.
Closing out the album is “Just a Kid”, an ode to, yes, letting kids be kids, which may be the weakest of the songs on the album, but whose existence is justified by the presence of an encouraging voicemail from the inimitable Ms. Dynamite, an artist that Ekwere once cited as her “Black British Hero“.
And that’s everything. There are eight tracks on Empress, and yes, each of them is worthy of note. There is not an ounce of filler, and every one of these songs sounds like something that could be a lesser artist’s best song. There is a classic sound to Ray BLK’s music, a feel that is clearly inspired by artists of the past, but in a way that doesn’t feel retro or nostalgic. Rather, this is R&B that is considered and it is timeless, done exactly the way that Ekwere clearly wants it to be done. Empress is brilliant. Ray BLK has earned a spot at the top of the R&B heap. Hand her the crown.