Long before I could comprehend the intricacies of romantic love in any real, consequential way, I would assume as my own the lovestruck triumphs and trials of my ’90s and 2000s R&B favorites. Sure, I did this with artists from the numerous genres that have always made up the music I listened to — from classical to rock, hip-hop to soca, reggae to kwaito — but these other sounds served their own unique purpose for making sense of the world through melody. Reggae, for instance, was “political music” before I realized that all music is political, and listened beyond the genre’s most famous slogans of resistance and redemption — the songs my parents sang often about needing justice more than peace, and standing up for your rights. But prior to and during my coming-of-age, rhythm and blues, like its parent genre, soul, was my go-to for sounds of love.
These sounds of love, with their accompanying themes of longing, sensuality, and heartbreak, were most famously manifested in Mariah Carey’s “Always Be My Baby” and Whitney Houston’s “It’s Not Right but It’s Okay” and Boyz II Men’s “I’ll Make Love to You.” (The latter of which I’m convinced my parents let me listen to only because I didn’t fully grasp the meaning of the lyrics yet.) These titans of the genre aside, artists like Aaliyah and Usher, TLC and Destiny’s Child were also gunning for their own legendary status with songs that seemed much more accessible to a child who wanted to pretend she was “More Than a Woman,” or was quick to insist that she wanted, or rather, didn’t want, “No Scrubs.” It was a marvelous time for R&B then — perhaps its last great collective period — a time that allowed these rising pop R&B artists to thrive alongside their more established predecessors and neo-soul artists like Jill Scott and Erykah Badu. Even now, it’s difficult to choose a singular voice that embodied the love-centered music of the era.
Still, Craig David, a young black Brit from Southampton, England, emerged with a distinct sound in 2000 — it was smooth and upbeat, sexy and clean, and fused the rhythmic tenants of R&B with the pulse of the very English 2-step garage. While David isn’t considered a legend by the high standards of the era, his first album, Born to Do It, delivered a body of work that broadened the genre’s sound and undeniably remains an R&B treasure. Born to Do It, produced by David and Mark Hill, a Welsh musician and producer, was also a commercial success, becoming the fastest-selling debut album by a British male solo act — a record it still holds — and selling over 8 million copies worldwide. (A representative for David did not respond to an interview request after I couldn’t guarantee inclusion of David’s newer projects.)
For me, the album sparked something more personal than merely relishing in the latest pop culture sensation: Before I encountered Born to Do It, R&B was about experiencing the music by youthfully (or childishly) mimicking the artist’s emotions. After David’s album, I wanted to probe the feelings I felt in response to the music, feelings of desire and longing, as if I were the person the artist was singing for, and about.
It’s difficult to say why Born to Do It had that initial effect on me or why— and even as an adult — it still inspires a yearning to place myself as the subject of his songs. It’s true that David is part of my list of early celebrity crushes, and my introduction to his music came at a time when my feelings for crushes, though still innocent, were also more earnest. It’s also true that I assigned emotions and experiences to these crushes via love songs, including some from David’s debut album — a practice I continued well into adulthood, before I realized that was a surefire way to get your heart broken by the person you liked, and potentially ruin the music you love. But Born to Do It isn’t the sole soundtrack to my adolescence — or more accurately, my adolescent sensibilities of love — at least not more than any other R&B album of that era. Besides, I was still far too young at the time to really experience David’s music with the substance adulthood has since brought. So I can only conclude that there was something about the combination of David, Born to Do It, and growing up that resulted in a perfect (love) storm for me. For the first time in those adolescent years, I confronted a nostalgia that I didn’t have a name for (and for what it’s worth, that I still don’t) — a nostalgia for a feeling I was supposed to experience in the future.
While “Fill Me In” was the first single from Born to Do It, I didn’t discover Craig David until his second single, “7 Days,” which is still his most successful hit to date. I watched the music video an embarrassing number of times — this, when MTV, and not YouTube, was the primary source for artists’ videos and you had to deduce the schedule of videos in rotation if looking for one in particular. In “7 Days,” David relives a series of days that are identical to each other in order to get a successful date with the lady he continues to meet as he “walked through the subway.”
He made it all sound so uncomplicated: “She asked me for the time, I said it’d cost her name, six-digit number, and a date with me tomorrow at nine.” The video was sexy and the song indeed somewhat about sex, though at the time I thought the third line of the chorus was “we were in lo-ove by Wednesday” and not the actually correct, “we were making love by Wednesday.” Nonetheless, I understood “7 Days” as a song that was first and foremost about a love that seemed to come easily and effortlessly. As a person who grew up around significantly older siblings and who preferred the company of older people, from my observations even then, that sort of love and affection seemed heavily chased but rarely attained.
“7 Days” eventually led me to “Fill Me In,” an even more sexually suggestive song about two people in love trying to hide their affections from their parents. While it wasn’t any more age appropriate, I did understand sneaking around your parents’ rules for the sake of love! For David, at least in “Fill Me In,” that meant visiting the subject of his affection when “her parents went out” so they could do “things young people in love do.” For me, it meant making sure I knew my crushes’ schedules and extracurricular activities, and finding ways to run into them — not that I would speak to them, which wasn’t important anyway. What mattered is David’s first two singles made me feel like someday, the lightness and ease with which he spoke about being in love was possible for me too.
I begged one of my brothers to burn the Born to Do It album for me — I was young, in love with David’s uncomplicated and love music, and completely unaware of copyright laws. I listened to it relentlessly and unapologetically, falling in love with it over and over again throughout my adolescence. Today, one might say an album “has the range” as a rare compliment, but back then, having the range was an expectation. Whether it was the especially garage-inspired “Can’t Be Messin’ Around” or the truer-to-genre upbeat flows of “Bootyman,” or the slow, given-up-on love anthem, “Walking Away,” David managed to navigate the dynamics of love with a serenity that was both soothing and seductive.
No song highlights David’s specific serenade manner more than Born to Do It’s fourth and final single, “Rendezvous,” which is my all-time favorite David song. The single is also the most potent example of the kind of longing the artist’s music inspired in me. Though I couldn’t describe these sentiments when I was younger, and could only ever experience it as an adult with some significant life experiences, “Rendezvous,” captured a romance that was based on simplicity: attraction to another human for their body and soul, and the encounter — both physical and spiritual — that occurs when that attraction is mutual. With its slow-moving tempo and amorous lyrics about “two souls entwined in the blink of an eye,” the song is an expression of the beautiful way one surrenders to requited love.
While the genre’s popular artists at the time prized a fervor in its love sounds, “Rendezvous,” specifically, and Born to Do It in general, met this fire with a quieter characterization of what vulnerability and passion could look like in music. David, of course, was not alone in this regard, and this isn’t exactly what distinguished him from his R&B peers. What stands out in Born to Do It is that David told love stories in a way that didn’t hinge on the serious, sometimes overwhelming work of sustaining love. Instead, the album held steadfast to the notion that love could be fun — that it is supposed to be fun, even when, and perhaps, especially when, it is also deeply meaningful or sexy or even uncertain of its eventual outcome. In my adolescence, this is what I needed to hear. As much as I may have loved all the R&B music around me then, much of it discussed love (and sex) in the intense, heartbreaking way I simply didn’t have the wisdom to appreciate. I would come to understand David’s music in a much deeper way as I got older, but in my adolescence, David’s love stories were simple, light, and free, which was everything I needed romance to be at the time.
Of course, David’s version of love in Born to Do It seemed more possible in the ignorance of youth than in the fatigue of adulthood (and its relationships). His subsequent, less commercially successful albums — Slicker Than Your Average and The Story Goes… — reflect a maturity in his own understanding of this, although the soothing simplicity with which he approaches his music and stories about falling in love didn’t diminish with age. Love was still fun, but it was also many other things: demanding, confusing, and sometimes, inevitably, temporary. Growing up leaves almost everyone with some kind of baggage, but also, if you’re lucky, the understanding that love doesn’t always do what you want it to.
And it’s not as if the promises of the kind of love in Born to Do It in my youth haven’t been realized — if adulthood brings weariness where romance is concerned, it might also bring (again, if you’re lucky) the gift of loving and being loved romantically, despite one’s baggage, in a way that sometimes feels easy. It’s this ease for and of love that Born to Do It ultimately delivers: a love that is simple and unconcerned with the future or the past or the practicalities of the people involved. A love that may look transient with mature eyes but feels worth holding onto forever, along with that little bit of childish enthusiasm one hopes they never lose.
When I listen to David’s Born to Do It now, it brings me back to a time when I longed for these feelings in the future, which perhaps just represents the possibilities of youth. I’m aware that any kind of nostalgia is a trap, a trick of imagination and memory, and nobody should ever steep in it for too long. But Born to Do It also reminds me that the feeling I was longing for in my youth was something good and beautiful even if I couldn’t define it yet. That uncertainty about love and all the things that matter is worth cherishing and leaving alone and living through. I’m glad I didn’t know it then, even if I’m grateful I can understand it now. ●