The stage is where wings are earned, names are made, and mortals have their chance at immortality. It’s also where wings are clipped, dreams are decimated, and spirits are shattered. Performing is an inevitable aspect of show business; that will remain unchanged. No two paths are alike on the road to stardom, but every route eventually leads to an audience with a microphone in hand.
Arin Ray, 22, knew an audience would arrive, but he wasn’t sure who would be staring back at him when he was asked to open for SiR, the most recent signee to the esteemed Top Dawg Entertainment roster. When we spoke over the phone, Ray was still a week away from the first of five dates starting in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Last year, while on the road opening for H.E.R.’s Lights On Tour, he recalled the sold-out crowds being mostly filled with women.
“My show changed. I was a little more hype the first show, but once I saw it would be more women I sung more, did more R&B records,” he explained. “I switched it up a couple of times. If you don’t catch them they’ll just stare at you for a couple of songs until you get it right.”
Of course, getting it right is easier said than accomplished. When the eyes staring back at you aren't kind, and the energy isn’t welcoming, it can be a suffocating experience. I’ve watched countless opening acts flail like sunbathing Magikarps as they struggled to garner attention from a sea of faces more interested in staring straight into their phone screens.
Rather than forcing his approach, Ray adjusted his performance to fit the setting. There’s something to be said about his awareness and intuitive flexibility; not unlike how professional athletes will analyze their performances after each game.
Being a contestant on Fox’s The X Factor certainly helped. The Cincinnati, Ohio native first appeared on the U.S. version of the reality show during its inaugural season in 2011 as a fresh-faced teenager who only auditioned for the show after receiving a push from his mother. After being eliminated as a member of the all-teen pop group inTENsity, Ray returned the following year for season two. Each of the show's four celebrity judges (Simon Cowell, L.A. Reid, Britney Spears, and Demi Lovato) showered the young singer with praise, acknowledging 12 months of growth.
That rapid improvement was enough to extend Ray's stay for a stretch of episodes, but he was ultimately given the ax in his fourth week. It’s hard enough to be critiqued in private, but standing before celebrity judges and millions of viewers week after week is not a task for the thin-skinned.
Over 10 million eyes tuned in to watch Arin Ray sing on the X Factor stage, but when the cameras ceased filming reality returned with no major opportunities to continue pursuing his dream. Singing your heart out on television doesn’t promise a record deal; there are thousands of contestants who went from appearing on American Idol to singing in their shower. Ray's destiny was for him to decide, and so he moved to Los Angeles shortly after graduating from high school.
Recently, Ray spoke with Gerrick D. Kennedy of the Orlando Sentinel about the transitional period following his relocation to Los Angeles, sharing the same story of many aspiring singer-songwriters who travel to L.A.—hopping from couch to couch, leaping from studio to studio; the ugly grind that television doesn't show the world. Instrumental in his artistic growth during this period was production and songwriting duo The Underdogs, who Ray met during his time on X Factor.
Starting in November 2013, the Ohio transplant studied under the tough tutelage of Harvey Mason Jr. and Damon Thomas. Every day for two years, he was present in their No Name Studios, writing and rewriting. Their prestige in R&B can be traced back to the late 1990s, throughout the 2000s, and even to modern projects like Straight Outta Compton, the music for which they arranged and produced. Arin was their pupil, groomed to be a stronger songwriter.
"I was learning from a lot of the writers under The Underdogs, but that was not when I started coming up. I was writing in the studio every day getting told my shit was wack. [Laughs] It was the real work. It was hard. They'd tell me, "Nah, bro! You gotta really do this. You gotta learn how to build a full song. You need to learn how to capture the people. You cannot just write nonsense. You need to think." —Arin Ray ("Arin Ray on His New Album 'Platinum Fire,' Starting Out on 'X Factor' & Working With YG")
Reconnecting with The Underdogs provided their irreplaceable guidance, but being in Los Angeles allowed access that is hard to obtain when you’re living outside of the paradise bubble. Hitmaka, better known to the wider hip-hop world as Yung Berg, helped usher Ray into the scene, connecting him with artists like Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown, K. Michelle, Jeremih, and more. It was an extended period of rebuilding, learning, and finding his way around the maze that is the music industry.
Loaning his pen and his time to the established names didn’t devour his desire to rise as an artist, though. Throughout, Ray made the time to work on his own music, and in 2016, independently released his debut EP, Phases.
The six-track release didn’t create a giant splash, but it was the first offering of what was to come and became the material he performed while opening for H.E.R on tour. Five years after leaving Cincinnati for L.A., while crafting his next project—what would become his recently-released debut, Platinum Fire—Ray signed a record deal with Interscope.
"It wasn’t too many people looking at me and trying to give me a shot label-wise. Interscope was interested. I been working with PushaRod. It just felt like where I was suppose to go. They were down with the vision, and let me do what I had to do to get my album done. They didn’t stop me from anything." —Arin Ray
The presence of L.A. is strongly represented on Platinum Fire, which features Ty Dolla $ign, YG, Terrace Martin, and SiR, who recorded his guest spot for "Fuck Y'all" while the pair were together in the studio.
“During the making of my album, I made it around TDE. It was in their No Excuses studio out there in Santa Monica. It was always Kendrick in one room, or ScHoolboy in another room. Jay Rock was around, or SZA was mixing her album. Also, SiR, he was working and would be there from time to time. It’s natural to link up after seeing people in the hallway, and kind of just chilling. SiR came through one day and was messing with the record we did, “Fuck Y'all” on Platinum Fire. He helped me write my verse. Not literally, but he helped me in the sense that he laid his down first, and that motivated me to get mine done. It was really cool to see how he worked. How he mixed himself. SiR can engineer his own vocals. He’s really hands-on. He has that musicianship that’s great to witness. His album, November, is my shit. Some of the hardest production this year. I think it’s a really, really dope album.” —Arin Ray
TDE’s touch on Platinum Fire also exists in the album's mix, as Derek “Mixed By Ali” Ali was behind the boards throughout the entire project. Ray calls his relationship with the conglomerate "extended family," a description he also affixed to Atlanta-based triple threat rapper-producer-songwriter, Childish Major.
When asked about his work with Ray, Major, who produced two songs and turned in a feature on “HMU,” confesses he hadn't heard his music prior to their session together—which was organized by Interscope A&R PushaRod—but was instantly sold upon hearing the music. “The amount of soul in his music is crazy, and the subject matter was very relatable,” Major told me via text.
“I went through ideas I had sitting on my computer. Then we produced them together,” Major elaborated when I asked him about their process. “Probably one of my favorite things about working with [Arin], he does everything like me.”
Platinum Fire as a body of work has the warmth of logs toasting in the fireplace; pleasant, cozy, and languid. Each of the album's 14 tracks sounds carefully crafted; production wraps around his melodious vocals with tailored fitting. If 6LACK is creating R&B for the hours following the moon’s rise, Arin Ray's soundscape is the soundtrack for golden-hour sunsets. A personal favorite is the self-titled album closer, a soulful refrain with a Terrace Martin-assisted saxophone that is to ears what Gummy Bears are to taste buds.
Now that Platinum Fire is out, Arin Ray is transitioning from the studio back to the stage. Appearing as the opener for SiR is an ideal opportunity to introduce his new music to a growing audience. Just like SiR, Ray is still in the early stages of building a fanbase, and it’s important to allow the music to be heard both on and offline.
“Hearing him sing was an amazing experience,” Regina Cho, contributing writer for Billboard, explained to me via text. "It’s like his voice is even crisper live, he’s a singer who sounds better in person. Pair that with his stage presence and it was overall a great performance.”
This isn’t the end of Ray's journey, but rather the first few chapters of a book that is quietly being written. The stage is where wings are earned, and Arin Ray is on a path to soaring. He is no longer the starry-eyed teenager singing for the approval of judges or needing America's vote to reach the next round, but a maturing adult who manifested his dream into a budding reality through tireless hustle. The stage he stands upon is before a few hundred instead of millions, but it’s all apart of the gradual grind.
His story is one of consistency, patience, and constant fine-tuning. Arin Ray is proof this business isn’t going to magically present your desires on a silver platter, even if you appear on television. But it will reward the hardest workers who are relentless in their pursuit of obtaining all they believe should be theirs.
By Yoh, aka Y-oh Factor, aka @Yoh31