There’s no question that when we put a button on 2021, Alicia Raye’s “Nobody 2.0” will stand as an Irish rap single of the year contender. But it was the original version of the song, dropped last year, that provided a winning outline.

Over a murky beat that sounds plucked from the Brooklyn drill scene – shady synths, a swamping bass line – “Nobody” opens with Raye materialising into view. Doused in vocal effects, her voice flutters into existence, the sound of a soul maven taking physical form in our presence.

Once corporal, Raye declares herself to be on the prowl. “Looking for somebody I can give my love to/ Looking for somebody and I see him in you,” she sings before demanding the object of her affection maintain silence about their rendezvous. Raye’s delivery pitches up somewhere between rapping and singing. Since emerging just two years ago, she’s displayed a level of vocal dexterity that belies her relative inexperience.

Raye is soon joined on “Nobody” by rapper Reggie, who name-drops Cesc Fabregas and talks up his fresh trim. You never get the impression that Reggie is playing the role of the man on Raye’s mind here, but a friend ready to lend an ear. “When I drop on the beat with Alicia that’s the spirit, iconic,” he spits. Her crisp voice and his baritone raps complement each other like strings and brass.

So, “Nobody” is a good song (I included it on my top 20 Irish rap songs of last year), but the remix, posted last month, broadens the track into something more anthemic. Smilez, Larry Alabi and A9Dbo Fundz (the latter of the A9 crew) are all invited to the party and they all smash their verses. Dbo’s tuba voice is easily one of Irish rap’s most notable instruments right now. There’s no thematic cohesion between the five artists because that’s not the point. And sure, it’s slightly disappointing that Raye and Reggie’s verses are the exact same as the original and not newly recorded, but “Nobody 2.o” fits together like pieces of a puzzle.

The video is slick too, a futureshock of red and blue tints, expensive motors and stunting to camera that I can only describe as world class.

It gives Raye a flagship track to build her rising reputation on. The original “Nobody” appeared on Alphabet (Irish Collaborative Tape), a sprawling 26-song suite (one song per letter of the English alphabet, presumably) that saw the Cameroon-born, Drogheda-bred, Dublin-based artist join forces with different artists on every track.

Produced entirely by the impressive Solo – aka Solomon Adesiyan, owner and founder of YouTube platform DearfxchTV and label Trust It Entertainment – _Alphabet _was one of the most ambitious Irish music projects of 2020, a kind one-stop destination to sort your party music out. It doesn’t all hit the heights of “Nobody”. Still, the project didn’t get one-tenth of the attention it deserved.

_Alphabet _is a veritable who’s who of Irish hip-hop and R&B. Ac-130, one of Irish drill’s most underappreciated voices, shows his gentle side over the guitar riff that runs through “Doritos”. BoyW1DR delivers a tuneful verse on the single “Summertime Flex.” The chemistry between artists is always on-point.

Raye has handed a lot of space on her projects over to others, so it’s time to talk up her many virtues. She favours a transatlantic contemporary R&B sound, evoking memories of Brandy, Teyana Taylor and everyone in between. Like Rihanna, she incorporates light dancehall into the mix, and boasts sharp pop instincts.

On “The Alphabet”, she literally sings her ABCs and makes it soulful. Then there’s “Real Friends”, which decries wolves among compadres and demands her flow become a bit more barbed, while “Love Wins” is appropriately more upbeat as Raye envisions a world of colourblind romances and LGBTI+ equality.

The most interesting collaboration on paper is “Let It Go”, featuring Tolü Makay and Erica Cody, which is placed last on the track list. As it turns out, it’s also the best song on Alphabet. The beat has a sleek yet mechanical movement to it that reminds me of the future pop of cyborg chauteuse Aaliyah. Cody namedrops Jodeci while delivering a vocal that honours DeVante Swing.

Makay’s past work has tended to veer closer to soul anthems and tender balladry, but she sounds right at home in a more streetwise style. If nothing else, Alphabet reasserts that talent loves company. Not that Raye needs friends to assist her rise. She can get there on her own alright.

Dean Van Nguyen is a cultural critic and music journalist for The Irish Times, The Guardian, Pitchfork, Bandcamp Daily and Wax Poetics, among others. As well as pop culture, he writes about identity, youth,...

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