With piercing strobe panels and chorus of rousing sirens seeping through what little space a packed XOYO had to offer by 9pm on a Thursday, ‘Shhh’ provided a startling jolt to commence proceedings in RAYE’s latest one-off sell-out. The ominous single from August’s SECOND EP is one she highlighted to The Edge as “the most fun to make” from it, and the follow-on from its lyrical density, peppered with trembles of the vocal power within, gifted a welcome reality-beckoning breather not five minutes into the set. As queueing down Cowper Street had been so in vogue, she told of how she teared up at footage her manager had captured before beaming and bobbing her way through a collection of excursions into heartbreak, disenfranchisement, and outright pop gold.
Especially with how frequently her name is currently bandied about amidst illustrious companions – Stormzy, Charli XCX, Snakehips, Little Mix, Ellie Goulding, etc. – it becomes far too easy to forget that Rachel Keen is still a 19-year-old BRIT School dropout from Croydon. At the time of her debut headline show – in October, over on the other side of Old Street at Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen, she filmed the ‘Shhh’ video as a warm-up – there was clear evidence from two EPs of a young R&B singer-songwriter finding subtle variety for her mature songwriting. Here, mere months later, five of her records were perched in the singles chart’s top 50, with her name and voice – carried by Jonas Blue’s ‘By Your Side’ and Jax Jones’ ‘You Don’t Know Me’ – kept only from the outright peak by a double dose of Ed Sheeran.
It was, therefore, inevitable that these dancier cuts would figure significantly in the programme, but how she elevated them from their staunchly whelming recordings with her charismatic delivery was quite something. The standard ‘By Your Side’ can feel erring as RAYE’s voice is distorted rudely after elegant string dashes, yet here very sparse instrumentation and off-beat clicks in the bluest of lights guided the track subtly towards its drop; ‘You Don’t Know Me’ needn’t have utilised a microphone given the way the audience joined in on its tacit endorsements of waving style-cramping iPhones around in the club, firmly laying her feeling of it as not “pop enough” to rest with a suitably commanding aura (“Time is money so don’t fuck with mine”).
Elsewhere, her original material did at times draw similar interaction with the crowd, coupling her contemplative writing with a strong vocal that, as she remarked, must be regularly watered amidst her boundless on-stage enthusiasm and writhing. From SECOND, the delicate string lines leading the resonant booms around the chorus of ‘Distraction’ arrested the ‘Shhh’ intensity with a defiant, victorious vein later employed to cap the encore-less set with audience chorus opportunity ‘I, U, Us.’ Tracks like ‘Bet U Wish’ and ‘Hotbox,’ written with astonishing maturity in her mid-teens and featured on 2014’s Welcome To The Winter, presented a yet more solemn strain echoed in ‘Sober,’ a tale recounted exquisitely from a keyboard for its public debut. The contrasts in topic and delivery to the gleeful playground pop ditty ‘My Girl’ were clear yet admirable, with her pure thrill around an audience a delectable tonic for the talent that will certainly realise her ambition of becoming “a massive artist.” Whatever “it” is, RAYE carries such a thing in spades, and those who experienced it with such intimacy will sense that it’s merely a matter of time until the rest of the world cottons on.