Divine Aspiration

In the United Kingdom -- indeed throughout much of the European Union -- Craig David has been accused of, well, walking on water. His debut single and debut album both went to number one in the U.K. The album sold more than 1.5 million copies there, prompting Britain's New Musical Express to call him "the best thing to happen to British R&B, ever." His first-ever arena tour played to 32 sold-out dates in the United Kingdom, France, Sweden, Germany, and Belgium, among other spots. So with the 2002 leg of his U.S. tour kicking off in Miami on the 29th, it's easy to imagine the twenty-year-old British soul man's winning streak will continue.

But American fans have a history of being nonplussed by R&B "saviors."

For any number of reasons. The U.S. critical establishment has made the title a cliché; any new singer-songwriter with a Fender Rhodes is anointed as the bearer of a "fresh new perspective" that will save soul music from rampaging Jagged Edge-isms, or venture into territory not already covered by the Mary J. Blige wannabes. And then there are plenty of folks stateside who deliver the same promise of salvation: Maxwell, Alicia Keys, Joi. To say nothing of those who, if not exactly saviors, still bring more soul than your average performing-arts-school grad: Bilal, Nikka Costa, and friends.

With the notable exception of Seal, the messianic road is tough for overseas-based singers. Remember the buzz over immensely gifted British singer Omar in the early Nineties? You don't? His stateside star was eclipsed by a fellow called D'Angelo. And the Nineties saw no end of British female singers -- many of them actually U.S.-born émigrés -- who failed to make a dent in the States' soul consciousness.

But David isn't your typical nu-soul guy, stateside or otherwise. Now living in New York, he has been hyping himself on MTV, BET, late-night television, and live-music showcases across the nation. His overseas-sales success has carried over to America, where his album Born to Do It went gold after 26 weeks on the Billboard charts, peaking at number eleven. David also has been nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance.

More important than his PR work is his style. Where many stateside soul revisionists lean heavily on the classic sounds of the Seventies, David's musical roots run through more soil. His musical makeup is a pastiche of the usual icons -- chief among them Stevie Wonder and Michael Jackson. Yet there are less-heavily-cited sources. One of David's main influences is Terence Trent D'Arby, a fave of David's mother. (David describes D'Arby as "the man of the house.") And like most of his generation he has absorbed the lessons of post-new-jackers like Donnell Jones and R. Kelly. Ask David to name his favorite artists, and he will line up a list ranging from Sisqó to Faith Evans, resulting in a sound that reaches both progressive and mainstream pop soul fans (who are likely to position David's disc next to, say, Ginuwine and Usher in their multi-CD players).

Then there's the big distinction: David gives a U.K. rhythmic edge to the new-age American-lover man. Although the two-step "revolution" hawked by the trendier media outlets hasn't quite happened (like swing and acid jazz, it benefited from popularity in the critics' social circles), David puts the breezy rhythm to good use. Reference point: the hit single "Fill Me In," where David lays the drama of a suspicious parent trying to get the lowdown on his daughter's late-night rendezvous over a guitar loop/two-step garage background.

Crossing soul with two-step makes sense for the British phenomenon, who began spinning records on his local pirate radio station at age fourteen. That led to a friendship with a local jack and family friend called DJ Flash. With Mummy's blessing Flash took the young David to his club gigs, where the teenager honed his MC chops. He learned fast and was soon holding down his own DJ gig at the tres hip club Juice. Meanwhile he was exercising his love for his soul and pop idols by writing his own songs. Prodded (some would say forced) by his music-loving mother, David entered one of those tunes in a national songwriting competition. "I'm Ready" not only won but went to number three on the U.K. charts when recorded by the British pop group Damage.

After that his DJing and songwriting careers dovetailed. "I'm Ready" caught the attention of producer Mark Hill, one half of two-step garage duo Artful Dodger. Hill, who knew David from Juice, where he gigged as well, invited the youngster to give his creativity free rein, letting him record with no real time table. Holed up in the producer's studio, David worked on material, tried out ideas, and sharpened his songwriting talents even further. The result was the 1999 British garage-club smash "Re-Wind" (which appears on Born to Do It). Considering how American producers are tuned in to overseas sounds, it wasn't long before David's buzz crossed the pond, catching the attention of P. Diddy, Dallas Austin, and Guru. Guru even featured David on his Vol. 3; Jazzmatazz Street Soul all-star compilation disc.

It's still too early to tell if David will inspire religious fervor in the land of the Puritan. But then again falling short of the divine will leave him in pretty good company. Even if he isn't cut out to be a savior, there are still a lot of benefits to being a favored disciple.

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Tony Green