Release Date: July 17, 2012
Merissa Campbell, the London dance producer who records as Cooly G, debuted three years ago with a 12-inch (“Narst” b/w “Love Dub”) on Hyperdub, the label run by dubstep pioneer Kode9. That made it easy to slot her music into the teeming, dubstep-leaning but outward-flaring style then coalescing in London clubs (and, for curious outsiders, via FACT Magazine‘s DJ-mix podcast series). But it was also slightly misleading.
FACT‘s Tom Lea described this genre/scene as “a broken space between hip-hop, dubstep, R&B, and techno,” though in Cooly G’s case (particularly on her own FACT Mix, also from 2009), the coordinates were house music and the skipping, rhythmic sound dubbed UK funky. This interstitial zone was sometimes further tagged “post-dubstep,” not because anyone thought dubstep was finished (though no one could’ve guessed how not-finished it was), but because the genre’s low-end curvature helped glue it all together.
Today, “post-dubstep” seems like a quaint, wishful idea. Dubstep has long since been Yanked; the idea of it as a flexible cornerstone rather than the hammering nightmare-next-door subsuming America’s young seems, well, foreign. In the U.S., dubstep is either the “new rock” (Skrillex’s Doors cover), the “new Big Beat” (Skrillex’s “Bangarang”), or “new nü-metal” (Skrillex’s Korn kollabo). But in England, where dance-music cognoscenti have long studiously downplayed blurt-heavy dubstep acts like Caspa, the umbrella term of choice became “bass music,” particularly as dubstep-ID’d artists moved toward straighter house and techno rhythms — see last year’s Back & 4th compilation on Hotflush and Scuba’s volume of the DJ-Kicks mix series. Compare that to America, where “bass music” evokes 2 Live Crew and “Da Dip” rattling the streets of Miami far more than it does anything from Blighty.
The context for Cooly G may have changed, but her music has remained steadfast: haunting and nonchalant, wispy up top and mammoth down below, beckoning the listener closer. Campbell’s beats are too fast to be labeled “downtempo” (shhh — nobody say “trip-hop”), but the intimate feel of Playin’ Me has more in common with the recent fellow debuts of Nicolas Jaar and Hyperdub labelmate Laurel Halo than a floor-ready set of bangers. It moves with the flow-through of a DJ set, albeit one that doesn’t behold itself to a constant rhythmic axis — late-night music created more for headphones than Funktion-Ones.
It’s sexy, but not exploitative. Sure, “Come into My Room” (dramatic, hovering synth chords and piano crisscross like bare spotlights with incense smoke wafting through them) acts as a quasi-intro for the gleaming pulse and subdued neon synths of “Landscapes,” whose refrain is “Welcome to my world.” But the idea of her room and her world being a mere step away from one another, equally cocooning, evokes Brian Wilson as much as Prince.
Playin’ Me isn’t an album of songwriting (unless you count the needless cover of Coldplay’s “Trouble,” and no, you don’t have to). That’s not just because about one-third of the record features no singing, or that the vocals are buried when they do appear, but because, however caramel-buttery her singing, Cooly G is a producer first. The details matter — a rubbery, wriggling, filtered synth figure hooking “What the World Needs Now,” the heaving, 808-led broken beats (as opposed to breakbeats) of “It’s Serious,” her collaboration with Baltimore house DJ Karizma, and the heavily filtered, alien-FX percussion on “Is It Gone” resonate in and of themselves. Moreover, they’re signposts on an album that was made for listening to as one piece. Whose room you do it in is entirely optional.