Craig David was just 19 years old when he became one of Britain's most popular R&B stars. The singer's debut album, Born to Do It, earned him stateside fame in the early 2000s and raised his profile to international levels. Two tracks from his debut, "7 Days" and "Fill Me In," garnered Grammy nominations.
But like many young talents, a bout of bad publicity hindered his rise in ways he couldn't predict. A sketch comedy show, Bo' Selecta, repeatedly targeted David in a way he says "tarnished" his public image.
"People were starting to get lost in that cult following," he tells NPR's Sarah McCammon. "And also, I wasn't putting out new music at that time, so therefore there wasn't that ability to let new music shine through." In hindsight, David says he doesn't like how he and his team handled the ridicule. "Being a young kid and also having a lot of people micromanage the situation ... I wasn't able to express myself," he says.
David dropped five more albums from that time on, none of which were able to match the success of his debut. Now, with a new home at RCA Records and a new album, The Time Is Now, he says he's he's found a second stride and is seizing the moment as it comes. The album features production from Canadian beatsmith Kaytranada and diverse guest appearances from JP Cooper, Bastille, GoldLink and AJ Tracey.
Here, David recounts the ups and downs of his career, his appreciation for the next generation of R&B artists and feeling stable in a genre that's changed so much since his first wave of success. "Life is all about how things rough up against you and how you see them and the vantage point you have from them," he says. "I'm as balanced as I can possibly be, but it's a lifelong thing."
Listen to the entire interview at the audio link.
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
Craig David burst onto the British music scene nearly 20 years ago with his first big hit album "Born To Do It" back when he was 19 years old. He set a record at the time as the fastest-selling debut album by a male solo artist in the United Kingdom.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEVEN DAYS")
CRAIG DAVID: (Singing) She asked me what we were going to do, said we'd start with a bottle of moet for two Monday. Took her for a drink on Tuesday. We were making love by Wednesday and on Thursday and Friday and Saturday...
MCCAMMON: With big crossover hits on U.S. music charts like this song, "Seven Days," and two Grammy nominations, Craig David was rising to become one of the U.K.'s biggest R&B artists with a growing global fanbase. But things changed when a comedian on a British TV show decided to turn Craig David into a caricature, donning a giant rubber mask to play a ditzier version of the singer. Craig David released several more albums, but they didn't do as well as his early ones. And then he took a hiatus from music. But now, he's in the midst of a comeback. His seventh and latest album, "The Time Is Now," is topping charts in the U.K. Craig David joins me now to talk about it from the BBC in London. Welcome. Thanks for joining us.
DAVID: It's lovely, lovely to speak to you. How are you?
MCCAMMON: Great, thank you. So music critics are calling this a comeback. What do you call it?
DAVID: I'm kind of cool with - I mean, comeback I think is - comeback is absolutely fine because if it means that I'm back on your radar in a positive way with my music, then I'm happy with that, you know?
MCCAMMON: And the new album that's putting you back on the radar, "The Time Is Now," how did it come about?
DAVID: I had this sort of - this beautiful feeling of when I made my first album, "Born To Do It," which was so successful. I mean, it was like 7 million albums. And it took me from living in a flat in the projects that you'd have in the States with my mom to then traveling the world and playing credible venues and arenas. And what I found is that when I went back to just being in that playful state, it just feels so authentic that I feel that people resonate with that.
MCCAMMON: Yeah. Is there a song on the album that sort of embodies some of that playfulness you talk about?
DAVID: Yeah. I mean, there's one song on the album called "Live In The Moment," which is produced by an amazing Canadian producer called Kaytranada.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIVE IN THE MOMENT")
DAVID: (Singing) And let's live in the moment. One door closes, another one opens. So let's live in the moment. No point holding onto what's broken.
It represents being in this moment, enjoy this moment. I recognize that we have things that we aspire to and we desire that may be in the future, but don't define yourself through the past. And just be here, present. And when you're in that present state, you have - all the magic starts to kind of unfold for you.
MCCAMMON: The spotlight can be harsh. It can burn people up. Just a couple of years after your debut in 2002, as you know, a U.K. sketch comedy show that mocks celebrities called "Bo' Selecta" did that sketch making fun of you. They also made fun of Elton John and other British celebrities, but you were kind of a recurring punching bag. What did you think of all that?
DAVID: To be honest, at the time, it really didn't affect to me. But I think it was starting to tarnish the brand. If I look back in hindsight, people were starting to kind of like get lost in this sort of very cult kind of following. And also, I wasn't putting out a lot of new music at that time, so therefore there wasn't the ability to let the music kind of shine through. It was like it's going and you're sort of just having to watch the show roll out, you know.
MCCAMMON: I mean, but did it totally not affect you? From things I've read from the time, I think you've said different things about this. But I believe you indicated that it was hard for you at times, and it may have gotten in the way of some of your work.
DAVID: Do you know what it was? To be honest, is that being a young kid and also having a lot of people trying to micromanage a situation. So you have PR that are trying to kind of like find the best route to kind of protect a brand. You've got management who've kind of got their way. There's more of an emotional sort of fiery kind of side to things. But because I wasn't allowing - and I think this is down to being a little naive and young - I wasn't able to express myself.
So therefore, I was just taking the opinion of, oh, should I be the tough guy in this time and this interview? OK, let's be that guy. Oh, should I play the vulnerable guy in this one? And then played out all these different kind of stories that kind of left it all over the place. And I think that's where there was sort of mixed messages as to how I felt about it. But looking back, genuinely, I was like, can I just get to the studio and make another song, please?
MCCAMMON: And let's get back to your new album. Why don't we listen to a song from it? It's called "Heartline."
DAVID: I'd love that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HEARTLINE")
DAVID: (Singing) Girl, I'm not afraid in running away tonight, no. I put my heart on the line for you, put my heart on the line for you. All my friends think I'm crazy...
MCCAMMON: So tell us about this song. Where'd it come from?
DAVID: I was in the studio with a producer called Jonas Blue, who's shown a lot of love for my R&B work. I mean, he was like a big fan of "Born To Do It." He said that was one of his albums that he listened to so much growing up and was like, let's get in. And I was a big fan of his music. But I just wanted to kind of get that feeling of his pop sensibility but at the same time kind of leaning it back into more of an R&B world. So it had sort of the tropical Afrobeat R&B sound to it.
MCCAMMON: I'm wondering - this album is being well-received, but you have had some big ups and downs in your musical career. How stable do things feel for you right now?
DAVID: Life is all about things that rough up against you and how you see them and the vantage point that you have from them. So in terms of answering that, I'm as balanced as I can possibly be. But it's a lifelong thing. There's always things that are going to like, oh, I thought this was where it was all kind of going, and then bam, something else happens. But it's the difference of it getting over you and you kind of feel like you can't deal with it is the difference between where I am now to maybe where I was before. Now I'm just like, you know what? There's a lesson to be learned in this. There's a blessing here.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I KNOW YOU")
DAVID: (Singing) We're all stumbling through the night. It doesn't matter. We're all together. And it's paradise...
MCCAMMON: That was Craig David. His latest album is "The Time Is Now." Thanks so much for talking with us.
DAVID: It's an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I KNOW YOU")
DAVID: (Singing) I know you know me too. We're all stumbling through the night, but it's paradise in our minds. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.