From the Beatles to the Sex Pistols to Fatboy Slim, the Brits have done a brisk trade selling rock back to America in natty new threads. Yet Sade aside, they can’t seem to do the same sort of business with R&B. Sure, there’s been some great, if mercurial talent — Seal, Soul II Soul, Terence Trent D’Arby (in fact an American expat) — but it’s never quite hit. Blame the scarcity of gospel-shouting, training-ground Baptist churches in London, or the xenophobia of domestic fans; either way, U.S. R&B remains a largely closed market.
Craig David may change that — at least if Atlantic Records has anything to say about it. He’s a gorgeous 20-year-old from Southampton with almond eyes, cappuccino skin, a George Michael goatee, and a homeboy-meets-hell-raiser hairdo. And his debut, Born to Do It, released last year in the U.K. and elsewhere, has been breaking sales records like champagne-swilling playas break stemware; at last check, it was seven-times platinum in his home country, and the smooth operator was selling out arenas across Europe. Now, after an exhaustive media push (dude had an 80-page U.S. press file a month before the record came out), we finally get to hear what the fuss is about.
Born to Do It is both more and less than its advance billing suggests. David is the first important vocal artist to emerge from the British club music known as two-step or garage — a fizzy hybrid of drum-and-bass beats, house-music swing, and R&B melody. ”Rewind,” his 1999 collaboration with production duo Artful Dodger, turned garage into a pop sensation in England, and that song — with its West Indian-style MC chant and DJ effects — caps Born. But club crawlers hoping for a dance-music tour de force will be disappointed by what is, to the very depths of its soul, a pop-fixated R&B record.
Those cruising for the latter, however, should prepare to be bedded. David’s high tenor, two parts Stevie Wonder to one R. Kelly, slides and skips over sparkling arrangements, massaging the end of each line the way he might your feet after a night of dancing on stiletto heels at a debutante ball. He’s often multitracked into teen-group splendor or double-timing through fluent rap singing. Melodies get sketched out by acoustic guitar, harp, or harpsichord; bells and wind chimes up the tinkle factor. And the rhythms bump along, busy but refined, nodding to American R&B scientist Timbaland just as he nods (admittedly or not) to British DJ music. It all gets a bit samey sounding, but its sexy canter works the mood thing like a good mid-tempo mix tape; it’s music to grind to without spilling your Moet.
The record begins with David declaring he’s ”got somethin’ to say, got somethin’ to say” — but he doesn’t, really, beyond the usual PG-rated lover-man tropes. He asks you to follow him to his bedroom, then advocates extended foreplay. He counts off the days of the week and thanks God it’s Friday. Understanding product placement, he name-checks himself frequently. But even on as silly a song as ”Booty Man” — a stud-for-hire confection that cribs cheekily from Sammy Davis Jr.’s ”The Candy Man” — his supple-voiced charm and tunefulness get over every time.
All told, it’s a brilliantly market-tuned fusion of R&B elegance and all-ages pop sugar. How will it fare here? Good question. In the U.K., David is a post-race, post-class poster boy for England’s new melting-pot culture, reflected by artists like Zadie Smith in her novel White Teeth. In the U.S., pop is more compartmentalized and scripted; with R&B artists as smoothly successful as Usher still feeling a need to make their image more ”street,” audiences may not warm to the squeaky-clean David, who still lives with his mum, doesn’t take drugs, barely drinks, and represents less as ghetto-fabulous than condo-contented.
But the man-child dubbed by countryman Sir Elton John the best singer in England shouldn’t worry too much — he’s already platinum in Singapore and Sweden, gold in Japan, Greece, and Thailand. And given his Brit-pop boosterism (he famously appeared on a U.K. awards show in a sweater trumpeting the slogan ”Buy British”), he’ll always have an audience back home.
If U.S. audiences feel him, though, it may open the door to more adventurous U.K. garage fusionists and give the domestic R&B scene a much-needed kick in the butt. In the meantime, David can start working on his Talking Book or Innervisions. After all, he’s still just a kid.