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The Rise & Fall & Rise Of Craig David

Born To Do It did everything that you could ask it to do. The debut album from a 19-year-old raised in the seaside city of Southampton, England, it had sold over seven million copies worldwide by the time its creator turned 21. One million of those units were moved in the US, where the album finally arrived the summer after its original August 2000 release. By 2005, Craig David wouldn’t even see his latest album in stores here. Countless British artists don’t make it in America, but David did, so why did he drop off the radar so suddenly?

David’s breakout was intertwined with that of 2-step, a club-born lovechild of house and R&B, and a kind of fraternal twin with UK garage, which took over as the new dance trend in late ’90s Britain after the jungle and drum and bass waves had crested. David was making regional rounds as a DJ by the age of 15, and connected with a pair of local producers, Mark Hill and Pete Deveraux, who were going by the name Artful Dodger (readers may remember that name from the Streets’ “Let’s Push Things Forward”: “I make bangers not anthems/ Leave that to the Artful Dodger”). Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 2001, David succinctly demystified 2-step’s inner workings. “It’s a hybrid of R&B and house-garage where you take the bass drum off the second and fourth beats of the bar,” he explained. “That gives a unique skipping feel.”

David’s three initial collaborations with Artful Dodger all built up this new nimble sound. First they made “Something” in 1997, then “What Ya Gonna Do” in ’98, but it was their third pairing, “Re-Rewind (The Crowd Say Bo Selecta),” that went stellar. The track had been buzzing underground for a while before finally having its day in 1999. Teenage David was suddenly the voice of a #2 hit single and the face of a new scene. It’s a wonder he didn’t lose his head.

“One minute I was coming up to London doing small PAs in, like, the Coliseum and the End, which was the kind of start of the whole garage scene,” David recalled in a 2017 interview. “Then within probably the space of four of five months after ‘Re-Rewind’ dropped, I was filming ‘7 Days,’ and then we were literally playing three nights in Wembley Arena.” His memory may be condensed there, but David’s ascent after “Re-Rewind” was rapid. Signing with a record label called Wildstar, he enlisted Artful Dodger’s Hill to work together on a solo album.

Born To Do It asserted David’s influences as being more in tune with R&B and hip-hop and the depth of personality and storytelling that one can bring to those forms. Abandoning 2-step altogether, though, would have been turning his back on the crowd that established him. A conscious decision was made to write a transitional song that would satisfy the old clubland guard but also ease into David’s broader vision. “Fill Me In” mixed controlled-burst verses, honeyed production and that fleet-footed beat, and it exceeded expectations by becoming David’s first #1 record.

David’s delivery on “Fill Me In” is impeccable, and the music’s hooks are subtle yet insistent, but the meanest feat that it pulls off is lyrical. Recounting a young lover’s house call, no time is wasted getting down to business: The suitor is summoned by phone and arrives to find his lady dressed in a long negligee already pouring glasses of red wine. Next thing you know, they’re fooling around a bit, switching on the answering machine, and hitting the hot tub. But instead of the scene reaching an obvious conclusion, the young man’s mind turns to the young woman’s parents, who, while nosy and a little controlling, are actually decent folks.

This anticipates the twist in the chorus, where David switches to the parents’ perspective, and every accessory to the romantic revelry becomes an item of evidence used against them: “Now you’re dressed in black/ When I left, you were dressed in white/ Calls diverted to answerphone/ Red wine bottle, half the contents gone/ Midnight return, Jacuzzi turned on/ Can you fill me in?” The second verse-to-chorus makes the same pivot, albeit with a less risqué scene of staying out late dancing at a club, the boy chivalrously giving the girl his jacket. The song doesn’t end up nearly as horny as it starts, and instead matures into a sympathetic look at an inevitable conflict between parents and teenagers living under the same roof.

The other huge single off Born To Do It, “7 Days,” also has a lust-to-love arc, this time snugly fit into the calendar week. A woman stops to ask David for the time, and he informs her this simple request will come at the price of a date with him. Even his friend in the pre-chorus can’t believe his audacity (“Did she decline?/ No/ Didn’t she mind?/ I don’t think so”), but the gambit pays off: “I met this girl on Monday/ Took her for a drink on Tuesday/ We were making love by Wednesday/ And on Thursday and Friday and Saturday/ Chilled on Sunday.” Laid over smooth Spanish guitar and a loping beat, the song’s conceit was novel without being a novelty.

This time the attraction is more than sufficiently consummated, but just as David begins to dish on the details, he declares, “I’m a man who’ll always be there,” and spends the rest of the song insisting that this connection is special, and that once the initial action cools down there will be plenty of time to get to know each other. Presumably that’s what Sunday is for. These two songs are not decoys. The most aggressive track on Born To Do It, “Can’t Be Messin’ Around,” is about staying faithful to a girlfriend. Elsewhere, be it “Follow Me,” “Last Night,” or “Rendezvous,” the action comes fast, but always with the potential for something more meaningful.

“7 Days” was David’s second consecutive #1 in the UK. He was two for two, and Born To Do It was selling by the truck load. Despite that, David looked at the American market with a grounded mindset. “Going over to America,” he explained in a 2002 episode of the British television program The South Bank Show documenting his rise to fame, “I felt, I’m gonna put down the bags of all my success in the UK and Europe, and I’m gonna approach this like I’m a newcomer who wants to show that it’s about songs, and it’s not about trying to please certain people and trying to make everyone enjoy every aspect of my music.”

By the time of that South Bank Show episode, David had made a lot of Americans enjoy his music. “Fill Me In” fared well on radio and MTV, and became a top 20 single. “7 Days” soon followed and did even better. “How to break Craig in the States was definitely an issue when we began discussing this project,” a senior director at Atlantic Records told Billboard as David’s promotional work duties got underway, concluding that his “different sound separates him from the pack” in an R&B and pop music field that had “become very producer-driven here vs. artist-driven.”

David, too, liked to point out his differences as much as his similarities with American artists. “I’m influenced vocally by R&B music,” he told Billboard. “As for rap and hip-hop, it comes from the UK’s garage scene, while my production leans into different genres. Being brought up in the UK and coming from a mixed-race family, it’s hard to put my style into a category. It’s left-field music that incorporates all my flavors.” While Born To Do It went platinum here, David’s popularity wasn’t enough to bring wider attention to all of 2-step. For one, it was already losing steam in its home country, where dance genres had to quickly evolve or die out, and the popularity of “Re-Rewind” had turned out to be as much a peak as it was a breakthrough.

For another, though he and Artful Dodger were 2-step’s most recognizable names, it was debatable whether it was David’s responsibility to be the genre’s ambassador. In a review of Born To Do It, Rolling Stone speculated whether he would, or could, do as much:

David doesn’t just have the burden of making a name for himself; he’s also supposed to be the one who finally introduces to US shores the knotted, electro-rouged beats of two-step — a.k.a. UK garage, the club music of choice for Brits. The problem is, to American ears already shaped by the sonic wizardry of people like Teddy Riley and Timbaland (two big influences on two-step producers), the sound isn’t quite so revolutionary. It’s actually kind of familiar.

Understandably, David was more interested in career longevity than hitching his wagon to one kind of beat. Born To Do It is bookended by “Fill Me In” and a remix of “Re-Rewind” called simply “Rewind,” which makes for a fitting and celebratory finish, but in between those two tracks the skipping percussion is scant. Despite David’s own notion that his music was left-field, Born To Do It is a moderate, very approachable album. US audiences had no trouble relating to it; his accent disappeared whether he was singing or rhyming, and the few hints of Englishness on the record are limited to the “answerphone” in “Fill Me In” and a couple of references to dreary weather. The nylon string guitar starts to wear out its welcome by the end, but that inoffensive over-reliance was a product of the time.

The response from all corners was mostly positive, which made the preemptively defensive posture of his second album, Slicker Than Your Average, a little off-putting. As the first beat drops in the title track, a voiceover tells David there are “some real jealous people out there” who are “trying to say how you’re wack and your music’s soft and you ain’t got nothing to say” — harsh allegations to open with. David responds that these people thought that he’d “only last one song” (at which point the voiceover helpfully reminds him and listeners that he sold 7 million albums), that his image was “squeaky clean,” and, most pointedly, “That I’m too R&B/ How I turned/ My back on/ The whole UK garage scene.”

There is usually an insecurity underlying bravado, but the vulnerability is palpable in the way David rakes himself over these coals. Which is too bad, because the song does have a confident swing, and once he gets it out of his system he’s free to have fun on “What’s Your Flava?” It’s well documented that Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory is David’s favorite film. First, Born To Do It’s “Booty Man” had imagined him as a candy man of lasciviousness (who inexplicably entreats you to check out the website www.cd.com), and he doubled down on his Wonka-vision in the video for Slicker’s first single, playing the lead role in a loose reinterpretation of the movie. As far as David’s flavor goes, it turns out he might be mildly allergic to nuts, so he’ll opt for chocolate chip.

Slicker Than Your Average didn’t attempt to remake David’s image, but it did present ever-so-slightly more of an edge. On the cover, he’s wearing a white T-shirt like he did on the cover of Born To Do It, but this time it’s sleeveless and shows more definition. He’s also looking directly at the camera instead of closing his eyes and turning up his headphones. While Born To Do It had been written entirely with Mark Hill, this time multiple collaborators, such as Soulshock and Karlin, were brought on board. Rising producer duo Marshall and Trell handled a number of songs, including the opening trio — the title track, “Fast Cars,” and “What’s Your Flava?” — which together take a more hip-hop stance informed by then-current American sounds. David still made time, though, for a nod to the good old days, pulling out the old garage moves for a song called, indeed, “2 Steps Back.”

David’s naysaying inner voice reappears halfway through Slicker Than Your Average on “Rise & Fall.” He would characterize the song as a warning to himself about what not to do with his own career, but even his own manager, Colin Lester, presumed on first listen that it was autobiographical. The tale of fame that the song tells is typical, but one lyric jumps out: “Now I’m too concerned with all the things I own/ Blinded by all the pretty girls I see/ I’m beginning to lose my integrity.” The maintenance of integrity is an impressive priority for a 21-year-old, but it’s also hard to imagine that David personally felt that he was already losing his at the time. Instead, this fits more into a pattern of David getting out ahead of himself: shouting out “Craig David on the rise” on his debut, the aggrieved tone of “Slicker Than Your Average,” fretting about the bad times before the good times have all been had.

“Rise & Fall” is built on a sizable sample of Sting’s 1993 song “Shape Of My Heart,” and Gordon Sumner himself guests on it, delivering the chorus in a voice that blurs the line between smooth and flat. After “What’s Your Flava?” and warm second single “Hidden Agenda” had only attained mere top 10 status in the UK, “Rise & Fall” was nearly another #1 hit at home for David. At the end of the day, Slicker Than Your Average didn’t match the impact of Born To Do It, but it still sold in the millions, going gold in the US even without the same broad airplay given to its predecessor. He had called his own sophomore slump and came through relatively well.

Only later did the fall David fretted about appear possible. Album cycle complete, he slipped away from the public eye in America. In 2005, his third album, The Story Goes…, went platinum in the UK, but, compared to previous heights, his celebrity status was seen as waning there, too. Two years after that, his fourth, Trust Me, neither capsized nor righted the ship. Both albums are consistently unobjectionable; not a bad thing in itself, but a quality which in pop music can be as much a detriment as an asset. Though he had once acknowledged the futility of trying to make everyone happy, these records at times come across as the amiable product of a people pleaser.

As the music industry contracted in the mid ’00s, record sales across the board were slumping right along with David’s, but in Britain much of the blame was focused on a moderately popular TV show from the era called Bo’ Selecta!, a one-man sketch comedy based on intentionally bad celebrity impressions performed in cheap rubber masks, somewhat reminiscent of the famed Spitting Image puppets. Poor taste was baked into the show, and the recurring absurdist caricature of David on it was questionable at best (the series’ creator recently apologized for its portrayal of Black celebrities), but this doesn’t account for how, say, The Story Goes… wasn’t released in America, where no one had heard of the show.

This isn’t the part where you feel bad for Craig David, though. When a British television presenter caught up with the erstwhile star in 2010, he was living in Miami, residing in a top-floor hotel suite and driving a Ferrari. “Pharrell lives down the road, I bumped into Lil Wayne… Nelly was also staying next door to me so he jumped on one of my tracks,” he told MTV UK at the time. A few years after that, David took steps toward a return to the spotlight back home, culminating in his 2016 album Following My Intuition, which brought EDM from Miami into his repertoire and revitalized him “from forgotten garage star to chart mainstay,” as the London Evening Standard put it in 2017. This “incredible career renaissance” remains ongoing, if also pretty much unnoticed on these shores.

Which is kind of a shame, because David has never been shy about his appreciation for America and its music. In one of the first scenes of that South Bank Show documentary, he’s in his childhood apartment in Southampton’s Holyrood housing estate going through some record crates, and asks his mom, “Do you know where the Biggie album is?” The title Slicker Than Your Average paid obvious homage, and in the video for his most recent single from last year, “Do You Miss Me Much,” he walks timewarp-style into an aspiring DJ’s bedroom (presumably once his own); behind the decks there’s not one but two Notorious B.I.G. posters on the wall.

David’s lyrics back in the day had a sampling sensibility, making reference to (or snatching a few words from) not just Biggie but Jay-Z, Busta Rhymes, Ludacris, the Pharcyde, Sisqo, Eminem, Toni Braxton, Will Smith, and loads more. Even roping in Sting for “Rise & Fall” felt like an extravagant callback to Puff Daddy’s use of the Police on “I’ll Be Missing You.” He still does it often. Take Intuition’s “Like A Fan,” where he sings “caught in the middle” like Chris Martin does in Coldplay’s “Trouble,” a blink-and-you-miss-it nod to a fellow former British rising star 16 years in waiting. David is clearly still a fan, still the guy pressing headphones to his ears, soaking it all in.