A curly-haired boy swaggered across the X-Factor stage. His presence caused the panel of judges to exchange glares before he’d even open his mouth. He was young enough that his suspenders, bow tie, and slacks couldn’t disguise the fact that he was only “16, going on 17,” as he proudly confessed to the audience. He was eliminated before the final rounds the year before and a cover just wouldn’t do for his return to the X-Factor stage. “I liked you last year, I like you even more this year,” said record executive L.A. Reid after hearing an original song written by the 16-teen-year-old.
“Count on Me” embodied what R&B was in 2012—the heartwrenching pleas of traditional R&B but the gestures toward pop meant you could dance to it. Six years ago, Cincinnati native Arin Ray was another teen hopeful, along with his castmate Normani, who would soon rise to fame with Fifth Harmony. With the release of his 2016 EP Phases and his full-length debut Platinum Fire, released back in March, the 23-year-old is no longer concerned with whether he has the “x-factor.” Ray is succeeding by drenching the nonchalance of today’s R&B into the traditional jazz stylings he studied in high school and the result is far from the drama of reality television. Today, he’s premiering the video for “Damn,” a percussive cut from Platinum Fire.
When Ray returned from his time on X-Factor, a debut like Platinum Fire seemed distant. There was no immediate record deal and he returned to Ohio, where resources were limited, to graduate high school. “There are no studios out there or anything for you to do if you want to be a musician—unless you’re playing small gigs or at the church,” he tells me, reminiscing on the years before his relocation to Los Angeles. Luckily for him, the Cincinnati native was enrolled at a performing arts school where he took jazz in his last two years of high school. Ray considered Boston’s Berklee’s College of Music as an escape from his hometown, but the nearly $50,000 price tag drove him to a revolving door of friend’s couches in LA. His time couch surfing in LA led him to his breakthrough single “We Ain’t Homies,” which set the template for the refined sound he’s adopted since.
Platinum Fire opens with the warm guitar strings of “Sometime Ass Nigga,” which is a testament to Ray’s impatience. ”It’s a lot of little things I’d love to hate on but I’m learning to get over stuff like that and not let it bother me,” he says when I pry into his inability to wait. “That’s been my life right now, the hurry up and wait game,”
His biggest concern comes in the form of one of the record’s standouts, “Communication.” “Not being able to communicate with people and not being able to get through…” he says. “It frustrates me.” The song, which features D.R.A.M, has the heartbeat of a Sade song with Ray’s vocals evoking Michael Jackson’s tender tone. Jazz is woven throughout the album, which Ray has a bit of a history with in addition to his high school years. He worked with jazz synthesists Terrace Martin and Robert Glasper on “Colors in the Dark” a vibrant track from their band R+R=NOW’s Collagically Speaking. The genre’s fingerprints are all over Platinum Fire, even when he’s doing more laid back R&B, like on “Damn.”
Filmed in Cuba, the video for “Damn” finds ray in the center of a heated argument.“Why you gotta test me now? I'm just tryna cool it now / But it don't matter, 'cause I told you to never go there,” he sings on the barely two-minute track. “‘Damn” for me is about not wanting to be stressed out in a relationship. Being with someone who you can have fun with, without all of the stress.” Directed by Keoni Marcelo and Superfran, the song is the realization that the person you sought as refuge could be the same person you’re fleeing. Damn.
Kristin Corry is a staff writer at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.