First, tuck your judgment; it’s not necessary. Second, listen with your mind, not your heart. Your heart made you side-eye the living shit out of the title, but your mind may be a little more open-minded. That’s a pun. Get it? I’m sure you do.
Before we get into the shenanigans, a few ground rules must be set. First, when I say his career ain’t half bad, I really mean that it is better than he’s given credit for. I’m not saying he’s Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder or even Tyrese (also not given enough credit for his career). I’m saying that folks laugh and sneer at Ray, and I don’t think that’s fair. For b, I’m not saying that Ray J has music that you’ll be playing at your wedding, funeral, work function or even while dropping a deuce, but his music is extremely enjoyable because I like good things and good things are great. Last, I actually like Ray’s catalog. As of this writing, I’m listening to “One Wish” on repeat (my Spotify can verify this), and I’m not ashamed to say that out loud. I’m a fan of Ray J.
(I also realize that Ray hasn’t released an album in almost 10 years. HOWEVER, when he was releasing music, it was good times.)
With that being said, let’s kick some actual factuals. In 1997 a 16-year-old Ray comes out of the gate with his first album, Everything You Want. There’s really no reason to know or remember this album. His voice sounded terrible, and at this point he was LITERALLY living off the “Hey, ain’t that Brandy’s brother?” that would dog him for years.
If you told me that Ray only got an album because he wouldn’t shut up about making one to his mother, I’d believe you. The first single off that album was “Let It Go,” which sounds like an outtake from Brandy’s first album. The entire sound is Brandy. Now, it is a good song but would be a better Brandy song. And his second single fared no better, and it shouldn’t have. You know what? Let’s just move on from this album. It was before Ray J was really Ray J.
In 2001 we’re treated to the musical beginnings of Ray J as we think of him now, as he dropped his This Ain’t a Game album on Atlantic, who clearly made a call to the Neptunes and said give us something to work with. Which led to his third-best-charting song, “Wait a Minute” (featuring Lil’ Kim). Lil’ Kim coined the phrase—“Brandy’s brother”—that Ray had to accept at some point as how folks were viewing him in the industry, though apparently the ladies loved him despite every woman claiming he’s the corniest dude ever.
“Wait a Minute” is a banger. You can put that on now and the dance floor will move, even if Ray J’s voice sounded super terrible on it. I’m sure that was by design, but point is, Ray had a legit hit under his belt. “Formal Invite” was the second single (also Neptunes-helmed), but the best song on the album is “Keep Ya Head Up,” a song dedicated to women about staying strong in the face of adversity. I can’t say enough how much this song is worthy of a listen. And no, you probably have never heard it.
A point of note here: Ray has never had the strongest voice. I know, shocker. But his lane is better in the sing-talk-rap style he mastered in the later aughts. While the duds are super dudly, this album featured lots of production from the Neptunes, Rodney Jerkins and even a DeVante Swing production—nowhere near his best, but it still sounds good because DeVante is da gawd. Point is, Atlantic attempted to stack the deck with solid producers and songwriters.
Ray J REALLY hit his stride, though, for 2005’s Raydiation album, one that I feel, as a body of work, is criminally slept on. OK, maybe not criminally, but at least parking-citation level. For one, it has Ray’s ACTUAL best song, “One Wish.”
Look, “One Wish” is an awesome song. Everything about it (including the video where Ray is kicking rain and ticking) works. The music is great, the songwriting fits Ray perfectly and I’m sure he spent a lot of time in the studio getting those vocals right. Donny Hathaway, he isn’t, but he manages to deliver the fuck out of that song.
That song was followed by “Let’s Play House,” “Blue High Heels” and “Melody,” the best four-track combo of his career. And the album also includes the song “Anytime,” a legit strong ballad I listen to randomly when vacuuming and Swiffering. The album closes with “Centerview,” a mea culpa of sorts to his mother and father mixed with an explanation of his shenanigans as an ode to his neighborhood in Carson, Calif., where presumably he linked up with the Blood set. It’s almost touching. Almost.
In 2008, Ray J dropped his final (to date) album, All I Feel. This album contains the most Ray J-ass songs he ever did Ray J. This is also the year after the Kim K. sex tape leaked, and somehow, Ray turned into sex symbol Ray. This album features his biggest single to date, top five pop-chart single “Sexy Can I,” but also features BETTER and more Ray songs “I Like to Trick” (personal favorite) and “Gifts.” Listen, as ridiculous as the songs are, they are ACTUALLY really good songs with solid production and execution. The vocals on “Gifts” alone are the gifts that keep on giving ... no pun intended.
In a nutshell, I can name a solid 12-14 songs of Ray’s that are good enough to warrant listening to on a random Wednesday over a four-album span that really is a three-album span because the first one shouldn’t be held against him, since he was finding himself and didn’t have somebody like Puffy (Usher) to drive the car.
Maybe I didn’t convince you that Ray J is a generational great, because he’s not. But Ray has a musical career that, while not stellar, actually isn’t bad by any stretch once you get past the fact that it’s Ray J, who, again, I’m a fan of. Ray is either a master cornball or a master entertainer, and I tend to view him through the latter lens, the same way I watch movies like Baby Boy and You Got Served and recognize them for being the great movies they are for entertainment value.
Ray J, you are a scholar and a musical gentleman.