Ray BLK – ‘Access Denied’ review: a move from conscious R&B to sultry commercial pop

The 27-year-old star has shaken off the expectations she has been held to and, on her debut album, she is finally unapologetically herself

Finally embracing her “gangster era”, as she’s put it, Catford’s own Ray BLK is at last releasing her debut album – almost five years after winning her first great accolade, the BBC’s Sound of 2017 poll. In this time, Ray BLK (real name Rita Ekwere) has become a formidable UK star in her own right, delivering confident R&B ballads all about uplifting her listeners. Now, though, ‘Access Denied’ prioritises Ray, and she hopes other women follow suit.

“People expected me to drop an album instantly,” the 27-year-old told NME in her latest cover story back in April, going on to explain that she “broke the rules” because she didn’t want to be pressured into being someone she’s not. Moving away from the acoustic-based, socially conscious music that made her famous, her debut album takes a more commercial turn, which utilises hip-hop and afropop.

‘Access Denied’ boasts a no-messing intro with ‘BLK Madonna’. Given that she’s still quite a fresh face to the rest of the world, many might see Ekwere comparing herself to Madonna as a cheeky quip. However, it all makes sense when it becomes clear that she just wants to be the best at her craft, and that no matter where she draws her inspiration from, she’ll make her way there. Over the chimes of ringing piano chords and high-speed hi-hats and claps, she gets back at those who always thought she wouldn’t make it this far, telling the listened in no uncertain term that she “started so I ain’t gonna stop”.

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We do see an evolved version of Ray BLK’s consciousness on the aforementioned ‘BLK Madonna’ and also on ‘Dark Skinned’, where she reflects on her hopes and dreams in proximity to being a black woman. She told NME of the song: “Telling people this rhetoric of ‘Your race being such a disadvantage!’, and that you can’t get through doors – I think limits people.”

She takes on the naysayers again with said track, also taking on tokenism and expressing that she wants to be successful because of her talent and not because of her skin. This is a song for those who need a reminder that being yourself is enough to be a star. “This industry is sizeist, ageist, racist, homophobic – everything,” BLK pointed out in our cover story. “Every industry is. So I try not to look for validation on my self-worth in what this industry says is important or how it validates people.”

Looking at her latest singles, you can see this good-girl-gone-bad narrative as she talks more salaciously and explicitly about romance and relationships, mostly from an angle of self-confidence and independence. ‘Games’ exudes a dreamy quality, an achievement considering its vulgar nature in places. The track features Peckham’s landlord, Giggs – who is the highly explicit one in this case – who helps along Ekwere’s tale for this club slow-jam, a she depicts boys who aren’t capable of love. The hook will get stuck in your head: “Boys will be boys, yeah, they all want to fuck”.

However, her singles have nothing on her album tracks, all of which harvest the fun new Ray BLK. The likes of ‘Over You’ (which samples the Diwali Riddim and features proud British-Jamaican Stefflon Don) and ‘Go-Go Girl’ (with rising producer/writer trio Surburan Plaza) epitomise the rebellious nature of this “gangster era”. The latter takes on an Americanised sound that their clubs could love. ‘Go-Go Girl’ boasts smoky braggadocio, perfect for those moments before a big event – getting ready for the club, festival, a road trip, anything: “I got no time to be friendly / Savage moves and Savage Fenty; I’m the subject of their envy”.

However, the knockout track of the album is ‘MIA’, which features whimsical R&B star Kaash Paige. The song samples ‘Stay With Me’ by ’80s funk and soul group DeBarge, its riffs made infamous by the ‘00s classic ‘Foolish’ by Ashanti. Talking from the standpoint of hopeless romantics intent on running away together (a theme that’s out of step on the album, but still works), Ray BLK’s smooth and sultry vocals result in an eargasmic tune. On YouTube, there’s a live solo version of the track: it’s faultless, with Ekwere’s second verse including poetic lines such as “there’s no lonely when there’s only us”. Texan star Kaash’s remake is less moving, but she still still delivers a simple yet effective feature on this hidden gem.

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Ekwere has been giving the world what she thought they wanted for half a decade, and now it’s time to collect what’s hers. Whether that’s awards, recognition, or simply her own joy, her music definitely proves that the innocent Ray BLK of before is gone forever. Although the album is called ‘Access Denied’, Ray BLK has granted us the first glimpse into her rebirth, and we’re ready for the ride.

Details

Release date: October 1

Record label: Island Records

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