Review + Photos by Nikki Rodgers

It’s a busy night at the o2 Academy. The two largest rooms are completely sold out and teenage girls have been sleeping in the streets outside since midday yesterday to secure their spot at the front of the 5 Seconds of Summer show taking place downstairs in Academy 1. Upstairs, though, up and coming contemporary R&B star RAYE is entertaining 600 loyal fans in her self-proclaimed ‘first ever sold out show.’

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Serving as RAYE’s opening act this evening is Kara Marni, whom much like RAYE has spent some time this year supporting Rita Ora on a few shows. No stranger to this venue, she mentions several times how happy she is to be back and these kids seem happy to have her.

Marni literally sprints onto the stage. Her energy is unavoidable and considering she’s out here all alone she’s holding this young and excited audience in the palm of her hand. There’s a real feeling in the room that people in attendance at this run of shows are getting in on the ground floor of a stimulating new wave of female talent and Kara Marni is certainly a resident in that stable.

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It’s hard for young touring solo artists to engage and encapsulate a room of strangers when merely singing to a backing track, but silencing any critics, Marni picks up an acoustic guitar a couple of songs in to cover Ella Eyre’s recent radio hit ‘Answerphone’. It’s a good move and is met with a full scale singalong from the crowd, but the real noise comes when Marni removes her ‘oversized year 7 jacket’ to reveal, well, not much else.

Overall, she’s an interesting performer and an asset to the evening. Her music would be difficult to dismiss as bubblegum pop for 14 year old girls, it’s more intelligent than that, and her closing offering in this short set shows influences ranging from Cibo Matto to the Cocteau Twins.

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RAYE first came into public consciousness in 2017 when she broke into the UK music scene featuring on Jax Jones’ single ‘You Don’t Know’ but by the level of anticipation in here tonight you begin to understand how she’s become an outright attraction so quickly.

A wave of noticeably feminine shrieks fills the venue as RAYE’s band files in through a door at the side of the stage, and as they begin to jam, this evening’s main attraction explodes onto the stage. Her name instantly and literally appears in lights behind the oscillating bodies of her musicians and the show is underway.

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In a throwback to the 90s electronic pop that has so clearly made a mark on her music, RAYE sports a yin & yang adorned t shirt and bounces up and down above the heads of her fans, whipping them up into a frenzy. The music is more dance oriented than you’d expect, think pop starlet wearing a set of rave tinted sunglasses. It’s immediately obvious that this experience is designed solely around forgetting about your problems and enjoying yourself, and what’s to be criticised about that?

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By her own admission, RAYE is not feeling too well tonight. As with most of us at the moment, she is suffering with the grog of the changing seasons, but as she addresses the crowd she explains that nothing was going to stop her from entertaining her fans tonight. It’s a common slice of clichéd stage patter, but for some reason you believe her…it’s not hard to see she’s being genuine.

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As mentioned, this show is RAYE’s first sold out headline appearance and she declares with pride that she’s “very happy it could happen in Birmingham”…a rare admission from a Londoner. RAYE’s real name is Rachel Keen, and it actually makes sense to hide that behind a stage name because quite frankly, keen is an understatement. She’s hungry; hungry for domination and hungry for success. The 21 year old from Tooting looks set to take the world on.

In between bouts of Balaeric melodies and Electronic roars, RAYE makes light work of engaging with her fans on the front row. She even notices a couple of girls who “have been supporting me since day one” and have apparently flown in all the way from Malta just to see a couple of shows.

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On reflection, there’s a lot to take home from this show. Is she talented? Yes. Can she sing? Obviously; but that’s hardly the point. The main draw here isn’t about sold out shows, it isn’t about fashion choices… it’s not even about the music. It stands to reason that RAYE’s most important contribution to the world could be offering yet another strong, positive influence on the young women that look up to her, maybe a lot more so than some of her veteran contemporaries. She’s the real deal, a talented, happy, positive reinforcement on an otherwise cold and wet Thursday evening in Birmingham, and it’s going to be interesting to see where she goes with her journey.

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