Skin by Joy Crookes

If you’ve been reading the blog or listening to the pod then you’ll know that I love a debut. I’ve always been fascinated by the raw honesty of a debut and the breadth of ideas that they often bring. They’re often the culmination of everything that has happened to an artist up until that point. I think it was a Galagher who said something like ‘it takes you whole life to write your debut album … then the record company want another one 12 months later’. For Joy Crookes that ‘whole life’ was 22 years when she wrote and recorded this special debut album. However, ‘Skin’ is far from her first rodeo with 3 EPs and 13 singles recorded and released since 2016.

Joy Crookes was born in Lambeth and raised in Elephant and Castle, and moved to Ladbrooke Grove in South London when she was 14. During these teen years she taught herself the guitar and piano and started writing music, ‘I didn’t know then that this could be a proper job’. Joy went the You Tube route to self publish covers and then her own original music in what is now quite a common rites of musical passage.

In Oct. 2021 she released ‘Skin’. It’s 13 tracks, 42 minutes and is (all puns fully intended) … an absolute joy to listen to. Sorry. Whilst the album would mostly likely be described as nu-soul or something similar, the styles on show are vast, pop, soul, jazz, trip-hop shades of punk and even a track that feels like it could be a Bond soundtrack contender (To Lose Someone). The album feels really personal in a way that many records don’t, even when an artist in sharing their innermost turmoil. This feels like proper soul music, channeling her young (but old) soul. 

In some ways it feels very much like a debut album; there’s loads of ideas thrown into the mix, she’s obviously exploring a rich soundscape that she didn’t have access to on previous recordings and there’s a brash confidence in the way that she struts and spins through the album. However, Skin totally lacks the naivety that many debuts (including ones that I love) suffer from. As we found with Arlo Parks this time last year, the signposts for her future output are numerous. She really could go anywhere on the next album … if of course Sony let her.

So, hold on tight … cause … we need to talk about Amy. My skin is crawling from even raising the topic of Amy Winehouse as it’s the worst lazy criticism possible. But, I am sorry, there are valid comparisons. But when I make these comparisons, I mean them as the biggest compliment to both artists. I loved Frank. It’s right up there on my list of faulted but adored debut albums. I properly fell in love with Amy Winehouse when I heard Frank. I felt like I knew her. ‘Skin’ has exactly the same kind of raw personality as Frank. They are both at times heart breaking and at the next moment amusing and jubilant. The broad, lush, widescreen soundscape that is employed on Skin is at times reminiscent of Back to Black. Both artists sound nostalgic and futuristic at the same time. When I say this album reminds me of Amy Winehouse I mean it reminds me of all of the things that I love about Amy Winehouse.

Lyrically, this album is a monster. Joy Crookes is a STRONG songwriter. This album really demonstrates her talent across what are quite different tracks in terms of style and subject matter. Relationships, gender politics, family shit, politics, and London are all in the mix. She writes about all of them in a personal manner that never looks the other way, is heartfelt and often well humoured. There are 1 or 2 tracks where the standard slips a little (Wild Jasmine being the track that comes to mind) but the album is strong enough as a body of work to keep momentum.

If this album was released earlier … even a month or two  … I think it would have featured pretty high in my 2021top 10. It’s so easy to recommend to people. Thank you Joy, I’m genuinely excited to see what you do next.

5 thoughts on “Skin by Joy Crookes

  1. Lovely words brother @misterstory. It hits so many of the things I feel about this album as well, especially the future/retro crossover. So much sounds inspired by and nodding to classic music but also with a twist that puts it into the now. (That sounds awful clichéd nonsense but you know what I mean).

    Also, as a Londoner, I love hearing an album that’s very much of the city, and there’s some lovely evocative references here throughout. Both lyrically (Brixton sitting high in When You Were Mine) but also that melting pot of reggae, Jamaican sounds and a very west London/carnival feel too.

    I’ll gather my thoughts but really looking forward to seeing what the others think.

  2. t’s a fascinating record, for sure. I kind of wanted to dismiss it a bit, because it feels like it treads on such familiar aural territory. But god, you just cannot fault the talent on display. The songs are ridiculously good, and really varied, and her personality absolutely shines – she’s got a real edge to her that perhaps the very slick production doesn’t quite match, but after a while, it starts to feel like a really good marriage.

    I agree too that it’s nice to hear an album with London so firmly on its sleeve, it feels rooted in a place and time, and married with those very contemporary themes, it can only be from one place and from now, even with all those retro stylings.

    Shout to the producer too, Blue May (see his post here: https://www.instagram.com/p/CVDj0ZElfXn/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link), who marries those retro stylings with a very fresh, modern sounding voice. It’s clearly a record that’s been worked on by a team of very talented people, including a number of co-songwriters, but what’s clear is that they were all working to give life to Crookes’ vision, and that’s perhaps why it rings out so loud and clear and works so well.

    A fabulous choice, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she was stratospheric in a year or two’s time…

  3. I’m going to try and expand a bit on how I feel, while tipping my hat to @davidhallison and @misterstory‘s own excellent points too. Because there’s SO much to say about this record.

    I’ve been doing a bit of reading, and while this is a debut, Crookes was first putting songs online at 17, and so it feels like another case of the ‘overnight big thing’ that’s actually been around for a long time, honing her craft. But as David’s also pointed out, there’s a great production crew here, and some fabulous musicians, but rather than an over-polished work of many minds, it feels like a musical vision has been realised with Crookes at its centre, having worked with a slew of people that ‘get’ what she’s about and worked really hard to ensure that’s fully-formed.

    Because musically, it’s just fanTASTIC. The lyrics and the music blend together so perfectly in so many ways, and it’s an album that’s really only starting to show its glory to me. It’s been in our lives for a couple of months now, but because of that and our 2021 Top Ten episode, I probably stood back from it for a bit but coming back in the last two weeks has been so rewarding, really diving into the songs, the lyrics and coming to know them in the way doing albums of the month nearly always reward you.

    Before I talk a bit more about the album, Crookes really is a pretty brilliant human. Of both Irish and Bangladeshi heritage, she’s an imprint of south London’s melting pot of cultural influences but – with especial note to this great interview with Gal Dem https://gal-dem.com/joy-crookes-interview-debut-album-skin-2021/ – is at pains to note that the album title ‘Skin’ isn’t about race or representation (““[‘Representation’] is the joke that keeps on giving,” she says, “South Asia is massive, you know, I could never represent all of that. We’re complex, as a society and a civilization – we’re different complexions, different sexualities, different genders'”), it’s inspired by a poem her dad wrote, and the album really is a journey through her life, surroundings, and emotions, but with songs often less about specific things, but about how she’s felt at many different times. And how she writes. Proud of her heritage, yes, but making it about more than that.

    Personally, as a Londoner (almost 25 years there, I’ll probably always feel closest to that city) there’s a joy in seeing an album so obviously with a city imprinted on it. Whether it’s direct references to Brixton (When You Were Mine) or Elephant and Castle (in 19th Floor), there’s such rich evocation of the sprawling capital, it’s a real emotional tug for me hearing it, now I’m exiled away in Manchester. There’s something so touching and vibrant about its place on the record, and just another reason to love it. I can’t think of many albums lately that made me feel that way about London recently (yes, Arlo Parks namechecks places but it’s a much more personal, intimate record that’s not really about its locations).

    I know Joey’s mentioned the A-word, and it’s hard not to have Amy’s shadow looming over things that so immediately sound akin to some of her classic work. But for me, it’s only fleeting. Crookes’ voice is deeper and cleaner, and musically Skin skirts around so many different places that it would be lazy in the extreme (hi, music journalists) to reference it anything more than in passing. While there is an obvious brassy soul to the album, it’s actually much more varied than first impressions, and its one of the strengths. From opener I Don’t Mind’s rippling tuned percussion and keys that accompany the strings, you realise its’ not just an attempt to get all broad-brush ‘retro’ (whatever that really means). 19th Floors’ wide-angle breaks make me think of Massive Attack, David Holmes and some of my favourite 90s records, all while Crookes talk about her high-rise origins in Elephant and Castle. Poison’s slow handclaps and sparse arrangements, leaning on airy piano, are a joy, with one of the best ‘ba-da-da’ chorus lines I’ve heard in a while, and Trouble’s dubby, carnival-like brass is the soundtrack to parental strife. Four songs in, it’s clearly a real sum of its parts that carries stories so richly on pitch-perfect musical notes.

    It does shift gear, with To Lose Someone’s silky lament sounding so classic and Unlearn You’s relatively austere arrangements show how the album knows when to highlight Crookes amazing – and we can’t under-emphasise this – voice that can take turns at sultry ardour, rasping choruses, and vulnerability all in the space of a few minutes. It carries so much. There’s some real lyrical impact too. Kingdom’s handclap-pop disguises racial divides of modern Britain in some fantastic couplets: “Visiting a bank for bread and butter / Don’t want to see no doctor when we suffer / Think I got a neighbour that’s been feeling blue / But maybe that’s a symptom / Fucking with a kingdom that never fought for you”. As you get into the songs you realise there’s so many layers and talent on show.

    Feet Don’t Fail Me Now addresses the BLM movement from the point of view of someone that’s not an ally or those that need it most. Passion and character worn on the sleeve, and songs like this are all the better for it. Skin is a beautiful poem to a friend who was struggling with their mental health, heartbreakingly so: “What if you decide that you don’t wanna wake up, too? / I don’t know what I’d do / ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you / 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”. Power pushes back against people that want to attack and diminish her and women in general. There’s such impact to the songs when you let them get into your head.

    As we talked about on the last episode, I feel that if this album landed in June or July 2021, it could’ve been arguably even bigger, let alone outside a pandemic. However, Crookes is touring relentlessly, and has already played Glastonbury and other festivals, appeared on Later…’s 2021/22 NYE show, and you wonder if this may be a shot at the Mercury shortlist at least. Right now, none of this feels remotely undeserved, and like albums from 2021 from Genesis Owusu, The Weather Station and Japanese Breakfast, you want it to succeed, you want to tell your friends about it, and you want it to blow wide open, because Joy Crookes is a star.

  4. I agree what has said everyone on this. It’s a very special album. I suppose I had an earlier start at the gates with this than the rest as the album hit me straight away on its release and has been a staple within our house for the last few months. Thus this is why it was placed so high in my personal top ten of 2021, and continues to have a heavy place in my day to day listening.

    Building on all the great points have already been said, I can’t explain how often I take a step back to digest the complexity and maturity of her lyrics and song structure. I’m still digesting little gems. This was a major conversation last year around Arlo Parks, and I think that Joy Crookes is another talent that can’t be ignored.

    On the year end podcast I think Guy mentioned about her being on a major label, and the hope that it doesn’t hinder her career. To be honest, from where I’m standing I think she’s an artist that needs the major label might to get her to where she deserves. Being on a major gave her time to craft ’Skin’ properly. You can tell by her initial EP’s she was on a path but time and backing let her get to the brilliance of this album. There’s also the underlying elements that in most cases can only come from a major; accomplished musicians, brass sections, and remix packages but some of the best in the industry. The last point has been key to Joy’s case as the Paul Woolford remix of ‘Feet Don’t Fail Me Now’ has been a major factor in Joy breaking America. I’d also like throw into the mix that her music videos are mesmerising, I can’t get enough of them. It goes without saying that having a major label behind you helps once again.

    There’s a sound of a generation at the moment, largely coming out of London that is very exciting. The likes of Sault, Arlo Parkes, Joy Crookes and so many more are making approachable, smart, political and wholesome music through both the indie and major label channels that I think has been missing for a while. I hope my kids digest these artists the way we do.

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