Sixteen years after I’d largely stopped thinking about my high school heartthrob, there he was, sitting in front of me. His face had filled out since I’d last stared longingly at his debut album cover, but Craig David was still identifiably Craig David, radiating boyish enthusiasm from a futuristic swivel chair, at his label RCA’s office in New York. The U.K. singer spoke mostly in phrases that could have been printed on mugs. “Change is inevitable,” he said. “Embrace it. Push yourself into the unknown — that’s when you’re living life.”
Now 35, David has traversed a nearly two-decade career with lots of change and varying levels of success. The singer from the sleepy city of Southampton, on England’s south coast, rose to fame as an early proselytizer of garage, an inherently U.K. club sound — right down to its pronunciation (“garridge”) with a shuffling, syncopated beat. At 19, he became one of the then-underground scene’s first breakout pop stars with 2000’s Born To Do It. An arsenal of ferocious hits — “Fill Me In,” “7 Days,” and “Walking Away” among them — drove the LP to sell 7 million copies worldwide.
As David told The Guardian last year, his songs became indelible timestamps for a generation’s collective experiences. That included my own, as I listened incessantly to his entire album on my discman on the other side of the world, in Perth, Western Australia. Born To Do It was far-reaching in its success, climbing to No. 2 in the antipodes and to No. 1 in the U.K., Denmark, the Netherlands, Ireland, Scotland, Sweden, and Malaysia. The U.S. was late to the party, as the album was released here a year later, spending 62 weeks on the charts and jumping to No. 11 on the Billboard 200 at its peak.
Since that time, David has endured some highs and some very public lows. Some have been self-inflicted, most visibly in the form of a bodybuilding phase and subsequent over-sharing on Instagram, met by comments typified by one follower who tagged their friends: “Soooo apparently, thiiis is what happened to Craig David daaaaamn.” They’ve also been delivered by others, as David tumbled out of British grace in 2002, thanks in part to the bizarre parody TV show Bo' Selecta!. The show took its name from the lyrics of “Rewind,” the Artful Dodger track that introduced him to the world, and lampooned him with a cruel caricature made by a comedian in an over-sized rubber mask. David became the butt of a national joke. He moved, or fled, to Miami, to a life filled with palm trees and bottle service and wraparound penthouse terraces. He pressed on.
“Through experience, I’ve realized that even when things seemed like they weren’t going right, there was a beautiful lesson to be learned in everything,” said David, who has a habit of leaning forward and grabbing his ankles when he touches on something he’s really jazzed about. “Everything happens for a reason.”
It was a 2015 appearance on cult grime jokesters Kurupt FM’s BBC takeover that sparked a Craig David revival of sorts. In a move bridging nostalgia and relevance, David came out of nowhere and sang “Fill Me In” over the top of Jack Ü (aka Diplo and Skrillex) and Justin Bieber’s “Where Are Ü Now.” It was an unannounced visit — the U.K. hadn’t really heard news about him since he’d moved to Miami in 2008, and musically, he’d been silent since releasing an album comprised mainly of Motown covers in 2010. Now he had returned with enough distance to take his rightful place in the British canon with reverence and respect, and the clip was catching fire. “Garage music to a 15-, 16-year-old kid now is brand new,” he told Complex U.K. a couple of months after the appearance. “It feels like I’m that 15-year-old kid again.”
Craig David [is] the best goddamn entertainer and wedding DJ you have ever seen.
Now, over a year later, on this particular Stateside trip, David was celebrating a recent nomination at the Brit Awards for Best Male Solo Artist alongside David Bowie and Skepta. And most significantly, for the first time in 16 years, he had been enjoying the view from his No. 1 position on the U.K. charts for his sixth studio album, Following My Intuition.
The 18-track LP is anchored by David’s voice, still lithe over a range of shiny club sounds. It’s a collection of fair pop songs, but for an audience that’s literally grown up with him as a soundtrack, they’re not as enjoyable — nostalgia’s a helluva drug. Understandably though, Following My Intuition is not for us anyway. “Some people were saying, ‘Have you heard of this new kid called Craig David?’ I love that,” he said.
The live shows, which David calls TS5, are keeping his older fans paying attention. Inspired by the house parties he used to throw in his glossy white Miami penthouse, TS5 is essentially David as party host and one-man megamix, both at the same time. He acts as his own DJ, playing and singing over beats from all eras, while working the crowd. It allows David to showcase his new music while throwing back to his golden days by playing his greatest hits. “I think the TS5 show has given me a whole new lease in life,” he told me. “You’re coming to the show later, yeah? I’ll throw some garage in there for you.”
Before a sold-out crowd in Brooklyn that knew all the words to his songs, David bounded onstage, a blaze of toned hamstring glory in tight black jeans. A fitted white denim jacket outlined a frame that’s no longer as alarmingly jacked as Instagram led us to believe a few years ago.
Admittedly my reignited interest in him started off as curiosity, and a chance to revisit the past. But seeing him work so hard onstage for what was my very first Craig David live experience, that sentiment very quickly turned into jaw-agape respect.
What sold it through? It was Craig David flawlessly trilling up and down “Rewind” while running back and forth giving the crowd high fives. A Craig David you didn’t even know could rap, rapping. A grown-ass Craig David behind the decks mixing and singing simultaneously about his nagging parents. Craig David being the best goddamn entertainer and wedding DJ you have ever seen.
“There’s so much going on that people are yearning for that ‘just give us that good feel, gimme the escapism,’” he had said earlier. And to witness his show — the night before Trump’s inauguration — was to fully comprehend this. In 2017, Craig David’s true power lies as a performer who can transport you back to a time when all you thought about were boys and homework. With ’90s and early-aughts acts like Ja Rule and Ashanti or DMX and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony still pulling crowds, the market for nostalgia-as-release has proved itself to be hearty and healthy. If it grows over the next four years, we’ll all understand why.