“When I was younger I wanted to be the black Madonna on stage, millions of people screaming my name,” sings Ray BLK to open her first full album, Access Denied.
Though she goes on to say that she’s older now and prioritises getting paid, you can hear that carefully honed superstar readiness in her voice, the irritation at being doubted in her tone and her potential in her pop-leaning R’n’B songs, shot through with swagger.
Back in 2017, Ray BLK (whose real name is Rita Ekwere) became the first independent artist to win the BBC’s Sound Of… poll. Rather than rush into a hastily thrown together debut to capitalise on that win, she has spent the intervening years working out what kind of artist she wants to be; her early releases were comparatively sparse but on Access Denied she has grown into her sound. The rich, silky production suits her, by turns thoughtful about her position as a black woman, livid with a cheating lover and simply obsessed with herself.
Her lyrics are witty and strident – see “Game”, where she eviscerates a man she will have sex with even though she knows better and sings: “I’ve been sipping D’Ussé and it’s got me hype, I might get an Uber, pop up like: ‘Surprise, I’m outside’”.
Also satisfying is “Lauren’s Skit”, which might as well be ripped from a TikTok video of someone’s best mate breaking up with their cheating boyfriend.
“Smoke” is a moreish, slinky number, while the melancholic “25” has the relatable hook, “I’m only 25, too young to feel this tired”, as she sings about how profoundly exhausting it is to be a black woman working twice as hard as anyone else to get anywhere.
She covers a lot of ground over the course of 14 tracks and there are moments that feel a little undercooked – filler among the killer. But Access Denied feels like a real step up for Ray BLK. It is self-assured, polished and profound. Clamouring fans and arena stages may well await.
Stream: Smoke, Game, Go-Go Girl
Protest Songs 1924-2012
★★★ ☆ ☆
Coventry ska specialists The Specials have put some of their musical roots aside for this collection of protest songs from across the years.
Apparently the outcome of two years of writer’s block (since 2019’s Encore, which included the stunning and self-explanatory “BLM”), they have retooled songs from Talking Heads, Leonard Cohen and Big Bill Broonzy, among others, giving them new power against the injustices of the day.
Some – Broonzy’s “Black, Brown and White”, for example – feel like they could have been written yesterday rather than in the segregated 20s.
Lynval Golding’s rendition of “Get Up, Stand Up” over pensive acoustic guitar highlights the emotional side of protest, a firm call to action ringing with understanding as well as pain, while the cover of Cohen’s deadpan “Everybody Knows” replaces the strings with swirling guitar moans. Rousing and heartfelt, like all good protest songs should be.
Stream: Get Up, Stand Up, Black Brown and White
Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett
Love for Sale
Are we all over the oddness of meat dress-wearing Lady Gaga collaborating with Tony Bennett yet? If the duo’s 2014 album Cheek to Cheek wasn’t enough to convince you that this was a match made in soft jazz heaven, then Love for Sale will cement it.
The two singers have found their groove and this album of Cole Porter covers swings into it nicely. Bennett sings with the verve of a man half his age (he is a mighty 95, though you wouldn’t know it), while Gaga brings a warmth and a wink to her parts that suits the wit of Porter’s songs perfectly.
Though most of the covers here rely on their two protagonists to elevate them, the title track is one of the most difficult to pin down; Gaga sounds like she has just stepped out of a talkie while the song hops volumes, tempos and vibes with panache.
Throughout, Love for Sale is nostalgic for another time: one of dazzling gold-plated dinner parties and smoky big-band clubs. A perfect match.
Stream: Love for Sale, Let’s Do It, I’ve Got You Under My Skin