Why Craig David's 'Born To Do It' Is Still A Gem 18 Years Later
R&B music was at its prime throughout the ‘90s with then-emerging acts, including Aaliyah, Brandy, Monica, Mýa, Destiny’s Child, Usher, Boyz II Men and Jodeci, working their heads off to keep the genre exciting and fresh. Quincy Jones enlisted Teddy Riley to work his new jack swing magic on the late Michael Jackson’s Dangerous album (e.g. “Remember the Time” and “Jam”) in 1991, marking the King of Pop’s foray into more of an urban sound. After ruling the ‘80s, Whitney Houston transitioned into the ‘90s seamlessly with the help of Kenny “Babyface” Edmonds, who co-wrote the No. 1 hit, “I’m Your Baby Tonight.” A new generation of rising superstars forced veteran performers to take notes.
As 2000 ushered in a new millennium, British R&B singers wanted in on the excitement as well, but they had their own unique musical style to offer– enter Craig David’s Born to Do It, which fused R&B with England’s distinctive garage beats. Selling upwards of 8 million copies worldwide, the 12-track LP went on to become the fastest-selling debut album by a British male solo act. Just nine years ago, MTV UK viewers voted Born to Do It as the greatest album of all time behind MJ’s Thriller.
Nearly 20 years after its release, Born to Do It holds more relevance than ever before. Insert Drake’s vulnerability on “Find Your Love” (2010) or the intricate lyrical rhythm on Ed Sheeran’s “Shape Of You” (2017). Justin Bieber’s “Recovery” (2013) borrows from “Fill Me In,” the lead single off Born to Do It.
The Born to Do It title was inspired by a quote in the classic 1971 film, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, but it also presented David as the next big breakout star.
The Southampton prodigy’s first stateside hit, “Fill Me In,” commands your attention with velvety smooth vocals layered over a sporadic two-step beat. The song tells an amusing story of a guy trying to make a move on the girl next door, but her helicopter parents keep interfering; hence the lyrics, e.g., “We were just doing things young people in love do/ Parents trying to find out what we were up to.”
Although “Fill Me In” is often credited for bringing the modern two-step revolution to the U.S., Born to Do It is largely rooted in R&B music.
Lyrically, nearly all 12 tracks focus on navigating the game of love from the perspective of a young man. “7 Days” is an alluring tale that would impress even the most notorious player. On the chorus, David sings about meeting a woman on Monday, going out for drinks on Tuesday and making love by Wednesday and again on Thursday and Friday and Saturday. They chilled on Sunday. Sonically, it’s an urban record with strong Spanish influences, showcasing David’s knack for crafting smooth, timeless R&B tunes at a young age.
The majority of Born to Do It was composed by David and Hill and recorded in a small Southampton studio.
“When we started writing Born to Do It, there were no labels involved or managers or anything,” Hill told Soul Culture in 2015. “We’d written the majority of the album before any of us was signed, so it was very much an organic process and it was just the two of us working on it without anyone.”
In fact, when David laid down vocals for the Artful Dodger’s breakout hit, “Re-Rewind,” Hill (one half of Artful Dodger) couldn’t afford to pay the then-teenager, so he offered studio time instead. That ultimately paved the way for David’s solo work.
David and Hill’s unexpected musical partnership paid off almost immediately. “Fill Me In” and “7 Days” proved to be commercial successes, reaching No. 15 and No. 10 on the Billboard Hot 100. Both songs received Grammy Award nominations for Best Male Pop Vocal Performance in 2001 and 2002.
Keeping with the Willy Wonka theme, David’s interpolation of “The Candy Man” on “Booty Man” shows off his ability to think outside the box as a musical craftsman and breathe new life into a beloved classic. Meanwhile, David continued to be wise beyond his years as he makes the decision to leave an arduous relationship on the album’s signature track, “Walking Away.” “But now I truly realize/ Some people don’t wanna compromise/ Well I saw them with my own eyes spreading those lies,” he laments in the first verse.
The acoustic-driven ballad marks one of David’s most heartfelt performances on the album as he saves the belting for the song’s climax.
In a 2016 interview with The Fader, David recalled a special live performance of “Walking Away” at the House of Blues in Los Angeles.
“I look into the crowd, and I’m singing [2000 single] ‘Walking Away’ at the time, and I saw Stevie Wonder singing the words back to me in the crowd. Man! I didn’t know what to say,” he said. “I got to meet him after, and he said: ‘I’d like to introduce you to Quincy Jones.’ Quincy Jones told me he bought 10 [copies] of my album and gave it out to all his friends. I had to ask him, ‘Was one of the friends…?’ He cut me short: ‘Yes, Michael Jackson [had] your album.’”
The fourth and final single released off Born to Do It, “Rendezvous” failed to chart on the Billboard Hot 100, which was surprising since it solidified David as a ladies’ man. On the slow jam, David asserts a certain level of confidence that’s similar to Usher’s “Nice & Slow,” with his enticing delivery and suggestive lyrics, e.g., "Rendezvous where to, my place say two/ And we can do anything you wanna do/ Hey, tonight is your night, yeah/ When you close your eyes/ Take a minute, take a moment, realize/ Do you see me when you fantasize?"
Seven albums deep, fans are still in awe of his rapid-fire singing and rapping style, which is demonstrated on the tracks, “Can’t Be Messing ‘Round,” “Last Night” and the feel-good “Time to Party.” The latter briefly samples Busta Rhymes’ 1997 hit, “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Could See,” a subtle nod to David’s DJing and emceeing days.
At the height of David’s popularity, rock legends Bono and Elton John lauded his musical efforts following a perceived snub at the Brit Awards, where he was nominated in six categories but left empty-handed. Unfortunately for David, he became a recurring punchline on the British TV sketch comedy show titled Bo’ Selecta!, which is believed to have had a negative effect on his career.
His 2002 sophomore effort, Slicker Than Your Average, failed to make a significant impact on the charts. Despite selling 3.5 million copies worldwide, the album, which veered off from David’s signature two-step sound, didn’t produce any Billboard Hot 100 entries.
Some might argue that David’s sophomore album was overshadowed by Justin Timberlake’s massive solo debut, Justified, which was released two weeks prior to Slicker Than Your Average. Having been lumped into the then-ubiquitous two-step trend, it’s also likely that David was misunderstood as an artist. “I’m not trying to bring R&B to America,” he explained to VIBE in 2001. “I’m trying to give you a different swerve of a genre of music that I feel needs to have a new beat of life,” he said.
Born to Do It's influence shined bright. In 2002, Rodney “Darkchild” Jerkins told MTV News the album inspired Brandy’s “All In Me,” which was featured on her third studio LP, Full Moon.
“I went over to London and was hearing all this two-step music and was like, ‘This is hot over here,’” Jerkins said. “It wasn’t even out [in the U.S.], then a couple of months later Craig David came out and [the sound] blew up. I wanted to incorporate that somehow without overdoing it, so I put that in the middle of the song.”
British R&B and soul certainly didn’t start and end with Craig David, but his crossover success broke barriers for other UK-bred singers, including Marsha Ambrosius, Estelle, Leona Lewis, Ella Mai (featured on his latest album, The Time Is Now), Corinne Bailey Rae and Emeli Sandé, to name a few.
At a time when bubblegum pop dominated radio airwaves, David struck that perfect balance between pop and R&B, while also staying loyal to his garage roots and bringing two-step to the foreground.
From start to finish, the album sounds just as sharp and fresh today as it did 18 years ago. Each song’s lyrics tell a story and the melodies are inescapable. Born to Do It is proof that magic can happen when the creative process isn’t inundated with outside influences in terms of labels and management.
So much of an album’s legacy depends on how gracefully that body of work ages over the years, but it’s obvious that Born to Do It was a gem from day one.
Stream Born to Do It below.
Princess Gabbara is a multimedia journalist and storyteller. She’s a former reporter for the Lansing State Journal, part of the USA TODAY Network, who has written for outlets such as Shondaland, Bitch Media, Bustle, The Boombox, Ebony magazine, Essence, Sesi, and Greatist. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.