As UK Garage hit its end of the century peak, three things became clear. It could ring up the hits, like no underground dance scene since hardcore rave. It was exceptionally flexible – the strains in the charts became more melodic and soulful, while elsewhere the music was getting darker, dubbier and more bass-led or more minimal and MC-driven. That was a bit like rave, too. But the third aspect of garage was not like rave at all: vocalists and rappers were central to this music, and the fans knew who they were.
An eager record industry put these three things together and saw stars. New, marketable stars, addressing the business’ long-running (and aesthetically myopic) beef with dance music – its notorious “facelessness”. The question of what to do with UK Garage and its inheritors is a subplot that plays out across this whole decade. The outcomes are mostly frustrating – potential missed or misused, bright careers fizzling out, and an overall sense of an industry that liked the idea of young, black British stars more than it supported the reality.
But that’s a story for later, as are Craig David’s own run-ins with the media. “Fill Me In” strolls into the charts with the aura of a major talent on the point of being realised. Craig David is the new decade’s first new chart-topper, but he almost wasn’t: he’d made his name as on the Artful Dodger’s “Re-Rewind”, the quintessential garage hit. “Re-Rewind” bumped beguilingly between slinky on the verses and lurching on the chorus: a hit that sounded like nothing before it. Across it all Craig David danced in and out of the rhythm, a hypeman in the process of becoming a soulboy, reconciling the odd geometries of the Artful Dodger’s future with the smooth moves of an audience out for a good time.
Smoothness was the angle David mined for his solo career. “Fill Me In” uses 2-step beats as a way to accelerate the song into its chorus, but the heart of the single is in its slowly unwinding verses, produced with the filigree delicacy of current R&B, golden nets of finely plucked strings enmeshing with the beat’s discreet stutter and David’s voice. Which is a gentle instrument, never really moving beyond ‘fond’ or ‘rueful’ even when describing parental anger. “Fill Me In” is a precise song, living or dying on its web of details – “Wearing a jacket, whose property / Said you’d been queueing for a taxi / But you left all your money on the TV” – which all feel real enough to build the mood. It’s as committed to painting a situation as Destiny’s Child’s “Say My Name”, if not nearly as dramatic.
But that gentility works in its favour, too. “Fill Me In” doesn’t capture the urgency of its chosen scenario – trying to get it on under the shadow of the parental panopticon – but it ends up somewhere just as resonant: looking back on those stolen moments later, a pinch of resentment mixed with nostalgia. Parents may not understand – well, no, in this case they understand all too well – but they’re almost as sympathetic a set of players here as Craig David and his girl. Antagonists, sure, but not villains, just obstacles with their own objectives in the game. And that basic sympathy is a sign of what makes “Fill Me In” work. Even at this point you can hear David being seduced by himself, keen to play the loverman role, but it’s kept in balance by his humane, keen eye. This and “Re-Rewind” together are a fine statement of talent and intent. They were also his peak, but we didn’t know that. For now, welcome to the 00s, again.