The UK has no shortage of neo-soul crooners, but few are as adept at storytelling as Joy Crookes. Her debut album is an evocative portrait of the artist as a young woman: by pulling at the threads of her identity – her Bangladeshi-Irish heritage; growing up in south London – and weaving them into wider sociopolitical themes, she has created a record that’s vibrant, urgent and brimming with life.
Comparisons to early Amy Winehouse will be inevitable, although they underplay Skin’s personality, politics and reverence for singers such as Ella Fitzgerald and Nina Simone. Take the beguiling pianos and bouncing melodies of Poison, which belie lyrics about pulling at the weeds of inherited familial trauma, or Unlearn You, in which the 23-year-old subverts romantic balladry to deliver a grim yet surprisingly beautiful song about the lasting effects of sexual violence. Likewise, on the trip-hop-laced 19th Floor, London becomes a battleground, Crookes staking a claim on the city while staring down its suffocating appetite for gentrification.
It’s not all so sharply drawn: the guitar-led Kingdom pokes at Brexit and the messiness of our government but lacks personal touches, as does by-numbers ballad To Lose Someone. But these are mild complaints amid otherwise distinctive songwriting, as evidenced on the retro stylings of When You Were Mine, which is as much a love letter to south London as it is about finding out your ex-boyfriend is gay. If the point of a debut album is getting to know an artist, then Skin is a masterclass.