My first concert was Spice Girls. (Actually, my very first concert was Brandy and the California Raisins, but it was at the Michigan State Fair, so that doesn't really count.) Twelve-year-old me literally jumped up and down when my sixth-grade bestie, Carmen, bought us tickets. The next year my middle school took a trip to London, and so began my spiral into Anglophilia.
One night, in the summer before ninth grade, as I was up way too late watching some no name music video channel, I came across a young, brown-skinned man sitting in a chair in the barber shop — was he wearing Bantu knots? baby twists? — detailing a weeklong romance in a flamenco-laced R&B song called "7 Days."
"7 Days" was one of 14 songs from the debut album, Born to Do It, that propelled then 19-year-old Craig David to stratospheric success. It showcased his lustrous alto, riffs and runs that could rival Usher, relatable lyrics, and a present love for American hip-hop. With the ubiquitous lead single "Fill Me In," the album also helped introduce the mainstream to a genre called two-step garage, in which David, also an MC on the underground club scene, was well-versed. Released August 14, 2000, Born to Do It debuted at No. 1 on the UK Albums Chart, becoming the fastest-selling debut studio album ever by a British male solo act, a record the album still holds. It sold 8 million copies worldwide and was listed as one of the Greatest Albums Ever by MTV; safe to say that album changed the Southampton kid's life:
"When 'Fill Me In' started to get a bit of love, I remember being carried from Capital Radio to [London nightclub] Sound on the shoulders of two security guards," David recently told _FADER._ It was pandemonium. That Justin Bieber pandemonium."
His 2002 album, Slicker Than Your Average, continued his hot streak in the UK, but didn't fare so well in the U.S. It also didn't help that around the same time a comedian — one of those Sacha Baron Cohen types — began to lampoon David regularly on a TV show whose title, Bo Selecta, was actually ripped from one of David's hit songs. Wearing a rubber mask (that bordered on blackface, tbh), he skewered David and other British pop culture figures. David's stardom might have been enough to ride it out — at 21, he had 13 million albums sold, 12 Brit nominations, and two Grammy nods — if it had not coincided with a decline in the originality of the music as well. You remember "What's Your Flava?" right? A monotonous song with a Willy Wonka-themed video, complete with Oompa Loompa-ish dancers and all? David released three more albums before moving to Miami, Florida, for seclusion.
He wasn't exactly retired, but he wasn't making new music either. Instead he was in the gym heavy, hosting weekly parties at his all-white mansion, and then taking those parties on the road for a DJ tour called TS5, the sort of thing you'd catch in Ibiza. But to the general public, David was headed for "Where Are They Now?" and #tbt status, until an appearance on BBC Radio 1Xtra on September 2015. This clip of him mashing one of his biggest hits, "Fill Me In," with Bieber's smash, "Where Are U Now," served as his resurrection. Seriously, look how excited these grown-ass men are in the video:
And what did David do? He seized his moment. He dropped a new song, "When the Bassline Drops," with Big Narstie, his first single since 2010, and a return to the garage sound he once helped popularize. Craig David is back! the headlines exclaimed. It went gold in the UK. So David kept plotting.
Next he dropped "One More Time," a banger. It pays homage to "Fill Me In," but also the whole musical era of the sped-up, two-step hooks and nice and easy R&B verses. I was happy to dance along to this, as were other '80s babies who remembered the Craig David of yesterday. He had a standout song (arguably the best) on Kaytranada's debut album 99.9%. But then...then he released "Ain't Giving Up," and my excitement was tamped down a bit.
I mean, it's fine, really. It's passable, even. It just struck me as a watered-down take on Bieber's "Sorry." And so here's my point: Craig is set to release his new album Following My Intuition, on September 30. If I could tell him anything, I'd say: Please don't let me down. You haven't released an album in six years, and a lot has changed since then. Don't chase trends (a la Usher), but don't chase yourself either. Nostalgia is a gimmick that holds interest for only so long. Nostalgia does not a comeback make.
I ask myself now what was so magical about Born to Do It. The Spice Girls, Robbie Williams, and more were in heavy rotation on MTV and becoming part of the American pop culture lexicon; maybe they'd warmed the water for other UK artists. Would we even have Sam Smith and Adele now if David hadn't years before drawn up the blueprint for crossover success? Maybe those 14 songs genuinely were all gems, sparkling with hunger and singularity. Or maybe it was just the right sound for the right time. Maybe you only get one shot to be a phenomenon; I hope not.
Sixteen years later, I still have my Born To Do It CD. It was a cultural exchange that expanded my worldview. But I need David to get this right. Following My Intuition should move forward, feel current, and look back just enough. 30-year-old me still believes he can do it.
The "Born To Do It" album cover