Joy Crookes’ debut album is called Skin. For a newcomer’s first major collection of songs, it’s a title that could come across as a little understated. As far as semantics go though, it can be said to be a clever wink at how effortlessly this rising singer-songwriter slips under the listener’s skin.
Listen to any of her tracks new and old alike (she has three EPs, as well as singles including a hypnotic cover of the ’90s indie-rock anthem You And Me Song), and it’s too easy to be reeled in by those husky, retro-tinged vocals.
Warm, self-assured and achingly tender, her voice is an addictive hook that’s often earned her at all of age 23 comparisons to all-time greats in jazz and soul. Crookes – who grew up in South London with a multiracial background (mum’s Bangladeshi-Bengali and dad is Irish) – however, does not want to be pigeonholed.
“I sometimes feel that if I were a white artist, it’d be easier to call my music pop,” she says over a Zoom call in late September, dressed in a cap and hoodie. “I think pop is an interesting genre because it literally only means popular. It isn’t defined by where you’re from.”
She adds: “It can feel loaded when people call me neo-soul or R&B or anything along those lines because, fundamentally, I don’t make that music. I do wonder if I wasn’t who I am, with the skin colour that I have, would I still be called those things, you know?”
Suddenly, the name of her first studio album – a soaring 13-tracker launched on October 15 to critical acclaim (at press time, it had a score of 89 out of 100 on Metacritic, which compiles and normalises reviews from professional publications) – gains a whole new depth.
“The word ‘skin’ massively resonates with me as, biologically, it is one of the strongest parts of our bodies. However, socially and externally, it’s often used against us,” she explains.
Skin is an autobiographical work – the piecing together of fragments of her life from when she was 15 up till now. A rich valley of highs and lows, it sees Crookes lay bare her thoughts on cultural baggage, intergenerational trauma, mental health, casual sex and more.
Silk faille gown, Valentino. Juste un Clou yellow gold hoop earrings with diamonds, Love yellow gold choker, and matching small bracelet and ring, Cartier. Ear stickers and chain (worn throughout), Crookes’ own
In the devastating title track, for instance, she puts forth a plaintive plea to a suicidal loved one to not give up (“Don’t you know the skin that you’re given was made to be lived in?/You’ve got a life/You’ve got a life worth living”).
Other songs take on a more assertive, almost aggressive tone, such as the catchy first single Feet Don’t Fail Me Now. In it, Crookes takes aim at herself.
Frustrated at her fear of the consequences of speaking out – something that tends to run deep in South Asian families – she conceptualised a vibrant tapestry of visuals that draws from her background for the music video.
In a memorable scene, she does a wheelie on a motorbike while garbed in a white sari – a garment traditionally worn by widowed women in Bangladesh as a sign of mourning, she points out.
“I really dislike the fact that we as women have to be defined by our husbands’ deaths. I chose to have all these Bangladeshi men around me (in the video) to reclaim the narrative and show strength in that character I portrayed. It’s meant to be a cry for someone who wants to reach out and be themselves; be individual,” she explains.
The video earned her criticism (accusations of cultural appropriation, et cetera) as much as plaudits (a nomination for Best Pop Video, Best Wardrobe Styling and Best Hair & Makeup at the 2021 UK Music Video Awards), but she’s not losing any sleep over that.
“The commenters didn’t spend the hours I had put in to work on the symbolism and meaning behind the video. I can break down every single scene and explain it all, especially with the cast that I chose and how that’s representative of my roots,” she says. “When I get backlash, that to me actually means that I’m doing something right.”
Crookes’ unabashed commitment to her truths and identity has been steadfast. Last year, she made it a point to turn up at the Brit Awards, where she was nominated for the Rising Star prize, in traditional attire: a gold lehenga and chunni (an ankle-length skirt with a matching top and scarf).
In an industry where people of South Asian descent are very rarely represented, it was paramount to feel comfortable in her own skin (yes, pun intended) and be seen, she says.
For someone who confesses to having spent most of her childhood more comfortable in boys’ clothes, she’s grown to be remarkably adept at integrating the semiotics of dress into her chosen narratives and making them work for her.
The video for her more recent single When You Were Mine is another ultra-textured visual essay in which she appears as a veritable goddess atop a tower of blossoming flowers.
And for this shoot – her first with a fashion publication – she had a clear idea of how she wanted to be dressed and took complete charge when it came to hair and makeup.
That full-throated willingness to serve all of her opinions, fears and vulnerabilities straight up on the plate has clearly found resonance with many, especially younger audiences who cannot seem to get enough of her.
At press time, she had clocked 240K followers on Instagram – a number that shot up in a matter of days following the reveal of her album – while several of her videos have over a million views on Youtube.
Most of the UK leg of her Europe tour sold out in an hour, but, some things just cannot be measured in cold metrics. As one well-liked comment on Youtube, in response to the video for When You Were Mine, puts it: “Joy’s voice and vibe is like a cozy, warm hug.” Skin couldn’t have been better named – Joy Crookes unfailingly touches others.
Peruse the images from Crookes’ fashion editorial below which were lensed by London-based Singaporean photographer Hidhir Badaruddin – his first shoot for a magazine from home.
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