By Eóin Donnelly
Who in the Hell is Arin Ray? Until yesterday, I didn’t know either, but so impressed am I by the Ohio singer’s debut album Platinum Fire that I am willing to guarantee its spot in my end-of-year top 25 list. For someone that listens to more albums on any given day than I eat meals in a whole week, that’s a pretty emphatic statement. Avid music listeners will know that there’s no better feeling than investing your wholehearted curiosity in an unknown name and being rewarded by an album so instantly enthralling that you can only immerse yourself in its gorgeous collage of sounds all over again. Platinum Fire is a strange album name for a release that almost definitely won’t go platinum- for reasons of commercial viability rather than artistic merit- and is more evocative of aquatic tranquility than a blazing inferno, but I’ll not hold it against Arin Ray, whose unorthodox path to success follows a recent trend of prime RnB talents doggedly grinding their way to stardom.
I wrote about Frank Ocean’s astonishing eleven-year journey to becoming master of his own destiny in July of last year, and many more will be familiar with Abel Tesfaye leaving home never to return, setting up a new life as The Weeknd in a dilapidated House of Balloons in Toronto which became the unlikely muse propelling him from nobody to notoriety. Of all the never-say-die dreamers that adorn the contemporary RnB scene however, the one most obviously similar to Arin Ray is Anderson .Paak. They say great art comes from great pain, so you could certainly say that by the time .Paak made his mainstream breakthrough at age 29 with 2016’s Malibu, his heart was more than damaged enough to capture the affection of ours. The pitstops between suburban normalcy and stunting on a Jumbotron are rarely safe or pleasant places to be. For .Paak they included divorce, a stint working on a marijuana farm and- most abjectly of all- a spell of homelessness, a trifecta of misery that would surely deter anyone unarmed with the invaluable spiritual weapon of steely resolve.
Like .Paak, whose big break was drumming for ‘American Idol’ contestant Haley Reinhart in 2012, Ray’s got talent show history. Eliminated at boot-camp as a member of the group InTENsity in USA’s inaugural season of ‘The X Factor’ in 2011, Ray returned again the following year as a solo artist. Finishing tenth under the mentorship of Britney Spears was a modest if unspectacular improvement, hardly befitting of the beginnings of an illustrious career in music. Still relentlessly in pursuit of his dream, Ray continued to plug away, nabbing songwriting gigs for Chris Brown, John Legend, Jason Derulo et al. As his debut album on Interscope Records, Platinum Fire is more breezy than Chris Brown, proving that Ray deserves to be a star in his own right.
Similarities with Anderson .Paak do not begin and end with autobiographical details. Musically, Ray has enough in common with .Paak that you could place any one of Platinum Fire’s tracks in the middle of .Paak’s incredible Malibu and you’d scarcely notice it was a whole other project. This is by no means a criticism, and Arin Ray’s debut is a much-needed injection of sunny soul in a genre oversaturated of late by glacial-hearted, nihilistic post-Weeknd RnB- from Tory Lanez to Post Malone to 6LACK- that more often than not fails to match its progenitor in sonic ambition or vocal execution. As a songwriter, Ray is not yet as emotionally diverse or lyrically idiosyncratic as .Paak, though his ability to conjure consistently compelling songs from leisurely West Coast grooves is difficult to deny. Ray’s affinity for old school sounds is evident throughout Platinum Fire. In fact, my favourite track (‘Old School’) sums up the listening experience best of all: “I keep an old school vibe for the summer.”
It’s no surprise that Ray’s father was once a drummer for 90’s RnB groups New Edition and Bell Biv DeVoe, with much of his debut album clearly influenced by the excellent RnB we still remember so fondly from that decade. I don’t know who owns it, but every time I see the ‘I love my 90’s RnB’ mug in my office’s kitchen I have to stop myself from stealing it. The sound of the 90’s is most apparent in the production, from the instantly addictive funky guitar licks (‘Who Came Up Missin’) to the organic, boom-bap drums (‘Damn’) that are so reminiscent of the earliest fusions of RnB and early 90’s hip-hop. As well as .Paak, I would be surprised if SWV, Aaliyah, Kelis, early Usher and D’Angelo weren’t in heavy rotation between Ray’s recording sessions.
As a singer, however, Arin Ray is much more versatile than a 90’s tribute act. He has plenty of range, and like all the best RnB vocalists he knows when to let the instrumentation breathe, sounding equally at home over the jazzy, Terrace Martin-produced title track as he does on an electro-soul jam with Ty Dolla $ign (‘Take’) and ‘We Ain’t Homies’ with Compton rapper YG. “You a non-fucking factor/I done past ya/I done come a long way since the X Factor”, he croons confidently on the latter track, which served as the album’s lead single.
If there are any complaints about Platinum Fire, it’s that despite Ray’s mastery of bubbling mid-tempo jams, the album may be missing that one song, that one electrifying single that elevates it from go-to vibe album to crossover smash-hit. By way of comparison, with the James Brown-like ‘Come Down’ and tropical banger ‘Am I Wrong’, the latter of which is to me one of the songs of the decade, Paak’s virtuosic Malibu had the throwback party hit and the post-NWA West Coast swagger to balance out the idyllic summer calm. For Ray, one song that may have had such potential is ‘Who Came Up Missin’, though at just over two minutes long it ends just as it’s getting into its stride. This minor grievance, however, is more out of concern for Ray being heard by as many people as his talent deserves than any discontent about the music he’s delivered.
Maybe it is best there are no obvious hits. As far back as 2000, D’Angelo commented on the commodification and watering down of RnB for popular consumption, labelling it as a “joke” that black music had been turned into a “club thing.” I doubt he would have any such problem with Platinum Fire, which follows a growing movement– Childish Gambino’s Awaken My Love, Daniel Caesar’s Freudian, SiR’s November and more- towards a softer, more indoorsy brand of soul. Remarkably easy on the ears, Platinum Fire is an appetising slice of serene and blissful Elysian solitude best enjoyed with a cocktail in hand and the sand at your feet. As simply as I can put it, Arin Ray plus rays of sunshine equals a day well spent.