- Annya Pabial
Why Joy Crookes' Skin is an ode to the South Asian Diaspora experience
You might have noticed that British-Bangladeshi singer-songwriter Joy Crookes has been plastered all over our Instagram lately. She has been a starlet on the rise in recent years and, just last month, the formidable artist released her very first full length album titled Skin, and it is incredible. Before I get into it, I am by no means here to technically pick apart the music and make an intelligent critique of it or the lyrics, only to tell you my thoughts and gush over the sheer brilliance of this woman.
Opening with a dreamy, slow-tempo piece, I Don’t Mind was super unexpected to me as the first Joy Crookes song I ever heard was the upbeat and jazzy When You Were Mine. Of course, this is my own fault for assuming Crookes would stick to one type of melody so as soon as I heard the delicate beat, I told myself to let go of all expectations and listen to each song as it came. Her lyrics stick out the most; poignant and intimate, like most of the album, my favourite being He's in my blood, he's holy wine.
19th Floor is, in my personal opinion, one of the most heart-wrenching songs on the album. Crookes’ sentimental lyrics coupled with a disjointed but seemingly pained beat makes for an especially emotive piece. Crookes herself says the song is a comment on the experience of immigrants which was the very first thing that came to mind when I listened to it. I thought about how gentrification has erased areas of my hometown that used to be places I would hang out at as a child. Crookes also says the song captures “a universal story for a lot of immigrants in this [the U.K.] country.” which is evident through the lyrics: I see the things you've seen, but you don't speak / And leave the traces / Like I picked up a parcel handed down through generations. The singer has been very loud and proud of her heritage; many of the promotional music videos and photoshoots feature her in traditional Bengali attire and promote her culture.
The next three songs, Poison, Trouble and When You Were Mine, are more upbeat, and I guess light-hearted, than some other songs in the album.
Poison reminds me of a very particular kind of person and I feel as though everyone has known someone like them in their life. And at this point, I think about how Crookes’ lyrics can appeal to a very wide audience; they’re personal enough to the point she pours her heart into them when singing but general enough to let the listener’s mind fill in the gaps with their own experience which, whether intentional or not, makes each song all the more enjoyable and gratifying. One lyric I completely ADORE is from Trouble; "Well, let me take the lead and I'll show / I'm Villanelle to your Sandra Oh." When You Were Mine is probably the catchiest song on the album.
To Lose Someone and Unlearn You are much more sombre tracks that give a little breath of fresh air to the album by being placed after those three perkier songs. With these tracks, Crookes’ vocal ability is emphasised more as the music seems to be used as more of a backing track to compliment her voice rather than be just as prevalent as it was in When You Were Mine. Unlearn You struck me as particularly moving as the song is about Crookes’ experience with sexual assault and abuse. She said it was quite hard for her to write as she doesn’t often talk about what happened to her but I think it’s incredible that she turned something traumatic into a beautiful song that no doubt her listeners who have been through something similar will be able to relate to and be comforted by.
Kingdom and Feet Don’t Fail Me Now have arguably two of the most unique beats on the album, the latter being another one of my favourites. Kingdom is a comment on the politics of the U.K. and the experience people of colour have living here. Crookes said she wrote the track after the Tories were elected in 2019 which I remember to be an especially disheartening result. The little snippet of a man talking about punk-rock at the end ties in the theme of Crookes’ personal politics with the song as she says she has always been politically aware and prides herself on being an activist to educate people where she can. Feet Don’t Fail Me Now is meant to portray a character who poses as that person, someone who pretends to care about social issues and posts online just to make themselves look good. It’s a very clever critique of all the performative activists we see on Instagram and Twitter who attend protests just for pictures or people who say they’re LGBTQ+ allies just to invade safe spaces or even that one friend you have who says they care about the problems minorities have then speaks over you when you’re trying to correct them on something. Also, check out the music video for Feet Don’t Fail Me Now, it’s gorgeous.
The tenth song on Skin is Wild Jasmine; this number took me completely by surprise because it wasn’t comparable to anything I’ve listened to recently. If you’re anything like me, you’re always looking for new music, always needing it to be something different from the last song you heard. If there’s one song I would recommend above the others from this album, it’s this one. Crookes’ use of playful beat, airy sounding vocals, including her purposefully inserted spoken parts, make for a really fun track. Favourite lyrics: Ten tonne heart everybody wanna steal / They want my song, but my pain doesn't get a deal.
The titular track, Skin, can only be described by me in one word: heartbreaking. I think Crookes puts the most raw emotion in her voice with this song, it genuinely felt like a gut-punch hearing it the first time. Again, her lyrics are deeply personal but universally felt, my favourite's being: 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. Starting off quiet, Crookes builds the track to a crescendo which is something she does with the next song, Power, in a more prominent way. Here, Crookes’ forceful lyrics and even more commanding voice really dominate and control the build up of the music. I listened to Power multiple times, blown away each time. No, seriously, I was sat on the toilet in complete darkness listening to it over and over in my earphones just in awe of how it made me feel, literal chills! She wrote it when she was eighteen which I think is just a testament to how brilliant she is as an artist and how assured Crookes is with her identity. My personal interpretation of the song, having not read any analysis or comments on it, was Crookes’ nodding to her South Asian heritage and stating how it’s something powerful rather than a hindrance. Being brown is something she’s proud of, something no one can shame her for or take away from her. The harmonies and backing vocals create a wonderful soundscape that just satisfied something in me. You know that feeling when a song really does it for you? That’s what Power is. The song is an ode to her mother and grandmother as well as all the women in her life, adding an extra layer of sentiment that makes the song all the more, well, powerful. Favourite lyrics: You can't take my power / You've got nothin' on me.
Finally, the last song on the album is Theek Ache (meaning ‘okay’ in Bengali). It sounds the most like a ballad to me and there’s a faint reminiscent whisper of Amy Winehouse in her voice for me. I’m in love with Crookes’ wavering voice, it’s delicate but messy in places which feels like she’s truly letting us in to get to know her and her own sound. Favourite lyrics: I'm wrecked / Kitten heels, cigarette / Mattress surfing.
Go listen to Skin. That’s all I can say. I think everyone will take each song differently and find a different meaning in Joy Crookes’ lyrics which is part of the reason that makes this album such a compelling and defining debut! She portrays the experience of someone living in the South Asian diaspora in such a beautifully chilling way that it hits way too close to home and just lets us know what she’s all about. I can’t express how personally empowering it feels to see a British-Asian musician doing their thing and being their complete authentic self, from her Instagram stories to her amazing photoshoots. I’m extremely excited to see what else this incredible musician gets up to and so glad to see more talented South Asian artists making their mark in the British music scene.