Arin Ray thought he had it made. It was 2012, and the singer was appearing every week on The X-Factor as Britney Spears’ protégé. Simon Cowell rained praise onto him, proclaiming him a star, and he easily cracked the top 10. But when he got cut, the record deal offers he’d expected never came. His phone was silent.

“I wasn’t being myself,” Ray, 21, says now of the pop songs chosen for him. Still, he shoulders his share of the blame. “That’s what happens when you don't take yourself seriously. I could’ve worked harder. It taught me that maybe I wasn’t where I needed to be. So let me get there.”

Five years later and a resume chockfull of hits for Chris Brown, Nicki Minaj, John Legend, Young Thug, Jeremih and many more, Arin Ray has arrived. After landing his first solo credits in 2015 with a pair of sultry bedroom ballads for Chris Brown, “Red Lights” and “Right Now,” and the heartbreaking “Kae,” demand for his vulnerable lyrics and taut phrasing skyrocketed. Over the next year, Ray racked up even more writing credits including songs for Rick Ross, Jason Derulo, Yo Gotti and K. Michelle while also releasing his own debut EP, Phases. Sleek with elements of future soul and warmed by Ray’s gentle, effortless vocals, the EP revealed that Ray’s gifts were not relegated to the writer’s room. Now, with the release of his forthcoming solo debut on Interscope Records, he’s poised to finally become a star in his own right.

“Music is missing the real. Missing some soul, that motivation, energy, groove. I feel like everybody’s trying to mimic everybody else. So I just went for it. I can’t be scared,” says Ray. Confirmation that he’d made the right decision came quickly and definitively. “I got to work with Usher, one of my idols, and he was like, ‘That’s hot!’” he says, eyes shining.

Ray was born in Cincinnati with music in his blood. His father was the drummer for early ‘90s new jack swing groups like New Edition, Bell Biv DeVoe and the Babyface-fronted After 7, and his aunt sang background vocals for Marvin Gaye. His mom sang in her church choir and in a group that scored a major label deal and even auditioned for The X-Factor along with her son.

Ray initially had little interest in music and dreamed of playing sports professionally. His mom had a different plan and enrolled him in an arts high school and for piano and guitar lessons. When she told him she’d audition for The X-Factor if he would, he eventually agreed. He made it all the way through, but got cut the first week. The next year, the show called and asked him to audition again. After getting cut a second time, he burned with determination. A week after graduating high school, he packed up and moved to L.A. The production team the Underdogs opened the door, inviting him to work in their studio. Soon, he was there every day.

“I really didn’t have no bread. Couch hopping, sleeping in the studio. Two years of writing every day. Getting told it was wack,” he says. “But learning and growing. Sitting in the rooms and watching everybody. Seeing plaques on the wall.”

He began to flourish, and when he met and clicked with Yung Berg, who’d been tapped to work on Nicki Minaj’s The Pink Print, Berg brought him along to work on the project together. Soon, Ray was getting placements with big names and earning money. He finally had the confidence to create his own music.

Combined with Ray’s classically trained voice and sophisticated yet soulful pillow talk, his forthcoming debut sees him refocusing modern R&B. Working with producers like Terrace Martin (Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly), Nez and Rio (A$AP Rocky’s “Pretty Flocko”) and Childish Major (Future, J. Cole), Ray has crafted a polished body of boundary-pushing tracks that incorporate everything from steel guitars to saxophones, glistening synths to gutsy, bluesy riffs.

“This is my calling. I think I come with something fresh. My music has that old-school feel, but still has that new bounce,” he says. He pauses, then grins. “There are some great artists out there pushing the culture forward. I wanna be one of them.”