It's hard to believe that just earlier this year Rayana Jay was thinking about giving up on her music career, considering her near-astronomical rise in recent months.
The 22-year-old Richmond R&B singer has been quietly, steadily grinding in the local scene since she was a teenager taking classes at the music non-profit Youth Radio. Her debut mixtape, last year's XXI, racked up a few thousand plays on SoundCloud, and her velvety voice appeared on P-Lo and Azure's latest releases.
But those were modest accomplishments compared to how quickly her latest work has taken off.
SaintHeron.com, Solange Knowles' arts and culture website, debuted Jay's single "Sleepy Brown" last month. On the track, her husky voice dips to sexy lows, sliding and gliding over a beat with an old-school R&B backbone and house synths.
XXI no doubt proved that Jay has a stellar voice. But "Sleepy Brown" made the case for her as a gifted pop songwriter.
Jay wrote the single as homage to Atlanta producer Sleepy Brown of Organized Noize, the collective behind some of Outkast and TLC's biggest hits. And deeper than that, it pays homage to her family's Southern roots and the Bay Area's cultural connections with the Deep South via the Great Migration.
Not long after the Solange endorsement, Brown himself praised Jay for the track. Then, "Sleepy Brown" showed up on a curated iTunes playlist called "Breaking R&B" alongside the latest by Rihanna and Kehlani. And soon after, TheFader.com debuted Jay's follow up, "Nothing to Talk About," a lamenting, poignant breakup song that pinpoints the feeling of pleading with someone who has already moved on.
"It's crazy because had I not met Vangie, I would not be making music. I seriously made the decision to quit," Jay said, referring to her manager Evangeline Elder. "And then Vangie came around and said, 'You got something here.'"
Needless to say, Jay's feelings of self-doubt have dissipated. "How fast [the recognition's] been coming is overwhelming," she said on a recent afternoon, sipping coffee in downtown Oakland. "When 'Nothing to Talk About' premiered on Fader I literally locked myself in my friend's house like, 'I don't wanna go outside, I don't wanna look at my phone.'"
Despite suddenly finding herself in the spotlight, Jay still lives the life of a regular twenty-something. When we met up, she was dressed in a baggie hoodie, click-clacking her long, acrylic nails on her screen as she typed a text to her mom.
Although she might not be famous yet, it's clear that the right industry insiders are listening to her music.
Jay just finished an EP, Sorry About Last Night, which comes out this week. The new project taps into a timeless quality with its smooth, old-school sonic palette. San Francisco's Mikos Da Gawd produced both of its lead singles, and his beats lend Jay's music a soulful quality with a vintage feel.
"Soul is really what keeps us alive, especially with all the shit going on," she said, referring to the current political moment. "I feel like shit's crazy right now and people need to hear something more meaningful.
"A lot of the music we're making now is acting as our rehab."
The move towards a more soulful sonic palette resonates with the old-school preferences we're seeing play out in late 2016 pop. Artists such as Blood Orange, Frank Ocean, and Solange have moved towards making quieter, subtler music with weighty lyrics and rich musical tapestries that emphasize quality musicianship over instant gratification. And Jay's work falls in line with this trend. Sorry About Last Night avoids obvious bangers, opting for more intricate lyrics that paint vivid pictures of desire and heartbreak.
"When I put out XXI, I was in a different space emotionally. [Before that], I was in a relationship and really happy, comfortable," she said. "By the time I had put XXI out, I had broken up with this person. So I think a lot of the growth from XXI to Sorry About Last Night came from that breakup. ... I had to dig deep down and try to write music when I really couldn't hear music anymore."
Jay said that Amy Winehouse's vulnerable lyrics about heartbreak and addiction motivated her as a songwriter. "All the songs in there are attached to real stories about real people who have come into my life and left my life."
And she's challenging herself musically as well. At Oakland Music Festival earlier this month, Jay performed for the first time with a live band, which included Drew Banga — one of the new EP's producers — on bass. Backed by the group's smooth jazz instrumentation, Jay delivered a set reminiscent of Sade. And even though she performed at one of the festival's small shows — in the clothing store Oaklandish instead of on a stage — she packed the venue and rocked the crowd.
Throughout our interview, Jay made sure to emphasize her female-led team, including manager Evangeline Elder and DJ Red Corvette. She also shouted out Pussy Posse, her interdisciplinary Black feminist art collective. "Next, I really want to reach out to a lot of female producers. My music may not have a 'strong woman' message, but the work that goes on behind it is definitely for the women."