The Meaning Behind “Escapism” by RAYE Ft. 070 Shake and How She Turned Real-Life Trauma into Creative Catharsis

In 2022, RAYE’s breakout hit “Escapism” went viral on TikTok. It marked a triumphant chapter in the British singer/songwriter’s life, overcoming personal trauma while finding the freedom to release her music independently.

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Her debut album, My 21st Century Blues, arrived in 2023, and it explores RAYE’s struggles with addiction, insecurity, and sexual assault. She writes about these subjects viscerally, using her extraordinary voice to expose demons.

For RAYE, born Rachel Agatha Keen, securing a No. 1 single with “Escapism” was validation following her high-profile split from Polydor Records. Before her breakthrough, RAYE’s career was a sequence of collaborations and EPs. She signed with Polydor at 17, but they refused to fund a full-length album. So, she went public on social media, and the pressure campaign eventually freed her from the deal.  

With increasing commercial demands, many major label pop artists languish in EPs and mixtapes, hoping for an opportunity to release full albums. RAYE found a way out and took control of her career.  

Hiding from Heartache

“Escapism” is about hiding the pain of a breakup with self-destructive behavior. The song’s narrator returns to addiction to avoid heartbreaking emotions.

A little context if you care to listen
I find myself in a sh-t position
The man that I love sat me down last night
And he told me that it’s over, done decision

Her substance abuse masks despair and a stranger at the bar, in the hotel room, well, at least she’s not alone.

Drunk calls, drunk texts, drunk tears, drunk sex
I was lookin’ for a man who was on the same page
Now it’s back to the intro, back to the bar
To the Bentley, to the hotel, to my old ways

When RAYE recorded her vocal, the line He told me that it’s over, done decision caused some confusion. Her collaborators thought she said, “dumb decision” and thought she should record a clearer version of the line. However, she left the original vocal in place. She told Rolling Stone, “It would have just stolen some of the life from it.”

It Began with a Beat

Typically, RAYE writes lyrics first but “Escapism” began with the beat, created by her producer Mike Sabath. He introduced the beat while they drove through the hills with the windows down, and RAYE said, “This is it. This is the one.” She wasn’t wrong. “Escapism” is nearing a billion plays on Spotify.

RAYE was so excited about the beat she feared she might not find the words to match it. She went to the studio’s bathroom to pray for inspiration, and when she returned, she listened to the track in headphones and didn’t remove them until the lyrics were written.

Then RAYE suggested a key change for the song’s ending. While listening to a loop at the end of the bridge, RAYE persuaded Sabath to change the key for the outro. It was early in the morning, and she recorded her vocals for the new part in a raspy “morning voice.”

The hazy ending sounds like the morning after a night of debauchery. When RAYE sings I remember nothing, so there’s nothing to regret, her voice deteriorates into cold, digital prose.  

070 Shake

Rather than wait for a high-profile collaboration, RAYE invited her friend 070 Shake to appear on the song. She recalled 070 Shake writing her lyrics on a napkin.

Be at peace with the things you can’t change
I’ll be naked when I leave, and I was naked when I came

The recording session felt natural, RAYE said, calling 070 Shake’s work “an art piece.”

Following the bridge, a cascading choir of RAYE’s vocals lifts “Escapism” to an ethereal dream state. Meanwhile, a rainstorm is buried deep in the track, taken from a voice memo Sabath had recorded.

It’s Hard to Breathe

The rapid-fire rap on “Escapism” has a stream-of-consciousness effect, but it also left RAYE with a high hurdle to clear for live performances. There’s little room to breathe for the singer, and with the key change, it’s become one of her most challenging songs to sing.

Still, it’s a smash hit, and it eventually topped the UK singles chart. My 21st Century Blues reached No. 2 on the UK Albums chart and claimed the top spot on the UK Independent Albums chart.

“Escapism” is a fitting song to define RAYE, an artist no longer hitched to the creative anchors of a major record label. More importantly, she overcame her own struggles with addiction, turning real-life trauma into creative catharsis.

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Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images for Coachella

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