Well-crafted soul has a special buoyancy, a quality that floats easy at the pace of its own emotion. It’s music that sounds effortless because it’s highly personalized: feelings are the medium and the secularized message, the fervor of gospel minus the religion. And just as soul was born by freeing itself from the confines of the church, its longevity lies in being freed from the constraints of instrumentation or subject matter—blue-eyed, brown eyed, shape shifted, psychedelicized, neo, downbeat, updated, and most things in-between. Most.
With her debut LP Playin Me, 30-year-old Brixton-born Cooly G goes beyond the well-crafted 12-inches and remixes she’s been putting out on Hyperdub over the past three years to lead us down a road of neo-soulstep and drum ’n basics, peppered with “aha” moments of genre reprocessing. It’s not a trail she blazed herself, but more the smooth repaving of a path currently less travelled, despite the renewed interest in lovers rock and the roots of rave.
That said, what elevates Playin Me above creative rehashing (re: Where were you in ’92 or its retrospective synthgoth equivalent, Light Asylum—both enjoyable enough) is its explorativeness. The album’s value isn’t just in reminding you to dust off your Soul II Soul, Sade or Goldie LPs, or in attempting to redefine/add a few names to a canon. It’s also in the nuanced production and in the emotional glue that creates a cohesive microcosm of sexual healing, tension, stuttering drums, relationship issues, sub-bass, and self-doubt. The opener, ‘He Said I Said’, sets the mood, with G’s plaintive vocals slaloming through a pinball dub of hi-hats and Dre-like synth bursts: “Sitting here across the room you/You make me think about . . . you.” Whoever “played” Cooly G haunts this album from the get-go, disappearing and reappearing in wails of a love lost or unrequited, and, occasionally, in the heavy breathing of a love made, as on the excellent bootknock ballad ‘Sunshine’.
What becomes clear about halfway through is that sad or sultry, Cooly G’s emotions are a much more quiet storm than the cathartic release of heavy bangers. Bigger, badder rhythms constantly appear to lurk just around the bend, hinted-at by the odd descending 808 snare fill (‘Come Into My Room’) or endlessly building pitter-patterns (‘Playin Me’). But with a few exceptions, like the ultra-funky Karizma collab ‘It’s Serious’ or album closer ‘Up In My Head’, the beat never drops too hard, and that’s one of the album’s greatest virtues. There are easier ways to get heads bobbing and asses shaking, and Cooly G resists them all, opting for a subtler tweaking of heroes and genres—most notably Timeless-era Goldie. Updated and dubstepified, Playin Me continues where Timeless left off, as if drum and bass never devolved into boring and predictable music for boys and continued to take vocal cues from house and British sophisti-pop. Bold. Even bolder is the brilliant reworking of Coldplay’s (!) ‘Trouble’. It takes true vision to see potential in something so schlocky. So God bless the asshole that left Cooly G high and dry, because if she hadn’t gotten played, she could have never played herself so soulfully. Lovers rock for a lover scorned.