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Rita Ora: Leading the New Brit Invasion

The British are coming! Again. U.K. artists have always crossed over, but a constantly evolving media landscape is changing the way the latest wave is crashing in.

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Rita Ora knows exactly where she stands. The 24-year-old has racked up four No. 1 singles from her chart-topping debut in her native England, serves as the face of major clothing and cosmetic lines, and is rarely able to exit a building without the incessant pop of flashbulbs. In the United States, though, she’s mostly still known as the badass blonde who wields a katana next to Iggy Azalea in the video for ”Black Widow.” If things go the way she and her record label hope, that’s about to change. ”Obviously, America is the pinnacle,” says Ora, who was signed Stateside by Jay Z and has toured with Drake and Coldplay. ”If you’re successful here, you’ve probably already won everything around the world.” When the singer drops her still-untitled second album in early 2015, she’ll join an influx of musicians whose passports are British and whose fingerprints have recently been all over the U.S. pop charts.

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Rita Ora knows exactly where she stands. The 24-year-old has racked up four No. 1 singles from her chart-topping debut in her native England, serves as the face of major clothing and cosmetic lines, and is rarely able to exit a building without the incessant pop of flashbulbs. In the United States, though, she’s mostly still known as the badass blonde who wields a katana next to Iggy Azalea in the video for ”Black Widow.”

If things go the way she and her record label hope, that’s about to change. ”Obviously, America is the pinnacle,” says Ora, who was signed Stateside by Jay Z and has toured with Drake and Coldplay. ”If you’re successful here, you’ve probably already won everything around the world.” When the singer drops her still-untitled second album in early 2015, she’ll join an influx of musicians whose passports are British and whose fingerprints have recently been all over the U.S. pop charts.

There’s no doubt Ora is well-positioned: Her songs are bright and bombastic and propelled by her confident charisma, and she landed a small but plum role in the hotly anticipated big-screen adaptation of Fifty Shades of Grey. But she may have an advantage others before her lacked: a playing field that’s more open than it’s ever been: ”With social media, the world is a much smaller place,” says Kid Kelly, programmer of several pop stations, including Hits 1, on SiriusXM satellite radio. ”Now you can tweet and Facebook with people everywhere. Everything is essentially at the same level.” For a prime example, look no further than Lorde—the teenager who uploaded a catchy little ditty called ”Royals” onto the streaming platform SoundCloud from her home in suburban New Zealand in November 2012. Within a year, she had a No. 1 hit on the Billboard Hot 100, and won two major Grammy awards.

”If someone’s got a good song, it travels very, very quickly,” adds Rob Stringer, the British-born Columbia Records CEO who has ushered in the incredible success of imports Adele, One Direction, and Ed Sheeran. ”I mean, if you said 15 years ago, ‘What is the number 28 record in Sweden? What is that record just added to the radio playlists in Britain?’ It’s all at your fingertips now.” But, he adds, there’s also ”a lineage”—a perception of British music as having a certain quality control. Kelly sees it that way too: ”I think that pop music in America is made with the intent of being commercial,” he says. ”The BS barometer is more fine-tuned now than ever, and people can tell that Sam Smith is an artist. You listen to Adele, and there’s no way she wrote that record thinking, ‘I want to be a commercial success.’ She writes from the heart.” Having talent, of course, doesn’t suddenly mean getting carte blanche from record labels with ever-tenuous bottom lines. ”It is really difficult to go into meetings with 50-and 60-year-old men and you’re a 23-year-old girl,” Ora admits. ”It’s hard to say, ‘This is what I want to do.’ Especially in front of people who have been doing it for so long. The platform is great, but I also have to put a lot of work in.”

And she’s hardly the only one mining for American gold. Another wave of hopefuls is already poised for the spotlight, including the Adele-esque Ella Henderson and Australian George Ezra, who follows the same template as Grammy-nominated troubadours Sheeran and Hozier (and will be touring with both in the new year). ”It’s all connected,” says Stringer, who brought Ezra to Columbia. ”It’s not dissimilar to when Nirvana came out of Seattle and all those acts came behind them, except this is a bit wider.”

Crossing the Atlantic has never been a sure thing, even for the biggest British stars—just ask Robbie Williams. But with the new democracy of distribution and more curious, discerning listeners than ever, their odds are vastly improved. ”I think the British are leaving quite a mark because the way they make stuff is slightly different,” Ora posits. Or maybe it’s simply the per capita talent of a country that has, she says, ”just loads of great voices.” If American pop stars hope to keep up with their U.K. counterparts, they might want to start drinking Earl Grey and crisping up their accents.

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