Cooly G had a chance to leave a profound impression in the evolution of UK funky between 2009 and the first half of 2010, when Hyperdub put her on the road to stardom (within the bubbling underground, that is) and released her first two 12”s, “Narst / Love Dub” (June 2009) and “Up In My Head / Phat Si” (August 2010). On the second, Merrissa Campbell had already started to use her voice and slow down the beats, thus indicating which way she had to go. She began moving away from the re-creation of classic house and garage as undertaken by Roska, and from Lil Silva's feverish percussion, finding a solution in the features breakbeat and pop traditionally had had in common since the times of Massive Attack and Goldie. It was the time to elaborate further on that option, and maybe deliver a classic, but “Playin Me” comes two years later than planned: when forced to choose between an album and a child (or two children, as it turned out), Cooly G chose motherhood; and that kind of decisions cannot be discussed, nor judged.
The release of the album - now that the worst part of sleepless nights and changing nappies is over - shows she hasn't lost track, and has been preparing her ideas for some time: twelve tracks (eleven of which are originals; “Up In My Head” is recovered right at the end) on which the seeds sown two years ago have come to full fruition. While raising two kids, she also took her time to look after an album, which must have been like a third child to her. If there's one problem with “Playin Me”, it isn't so much the focus or direction, but the time frame: in 2010, the record would have beaten Ikonika (certainly) and Darkstar (possibly), Hyperdub's two aces for that year, and she would have been there before Laurel Halo. Furthermore, she would have established herself, along with King Midas Sound, as the artist who best understands the spiritual link between British 90s downtempo and the melancholy of these days. “Playin Me” isn't a laid-back album, far from it, in fact (when the bass line enters on the title track, beating like a heart on the verge of exploding after a nervous breakdown, and which finally sounds like an Orbital interlude, before launching into a furious beat, your whole body is shaking), but as a whole, it oozes light and happiness, while at the same time taming the rage and darkness. After all, the effort is marked by motherly love.
Some might say Cooly G's album starts in an outdated fashion (album opener “He Said I Said” is a ballad with subterranean accelerations swaying between undulating notes and a layer of fog; while she sings like an intoxicating soul diva, dangerously bordering on coffee table music, like 4Hero's third LP, 1998's “Two Pages”), but that's only a part of “Playin Me”. It's a division which, indeed, borders on self-satisfaction in the rendition of Coldplay's tear-jerking “Trouble”, no matter how much she twists it into wonkiness, but reaches excellence on “Landscapes”. And then there are the moments during which Cooly G digs through history; launching herself down zigzagging bass slides on “What This Wold Needs Now” and recovering the aesthetics of the jungle anthem on “Come Into My Room”. The latter recycles the euphoric intros of Omni Trio and Goldie (crystalline piano, golden synths, floating voice), yet always prevents the frantic break from coming in, keeping only the sweet stuff and avoiding the fury. Titles like “Good Times” and “Sunshine” stress that pinch of nostalgia (even though it's second-hand nostalgia, remembering an era she never experienced first-hand); nostalgia for a kind of club music that can’t be understood without the balance between the feminine and the masculine.
Had this record come out in 1998, it would have been on a label like Talkin’ Loud: classic and futurist, human and cybernetic, extremely elegant, with the calculated risk of sounding too 'adult' at times, too 'Sunday morning relaxation' (“Trying”). But when things get ugly on “What Airtime” (the most funky house-like moment on the whole album, where the breaks rebel and the bass gets rave-y) and on the almost Indian-like psychedelia (like Talvin Singh in the 21st century) of “It’s Serious” (with Karizma), there's enough counterweight to leave “Playin Me” efficiently balanced: on one side, it's an album that wants to go beyond the clubs (family post-dubstep, like a Pixar production for DJs with kids? Possibly), but on the other a record that wants to go beyond the present, fitting in a long tradition (which goes from Jamaican lovers rock to liquid drum'n'bass and 2step) where the feminine influence makes for a human and evocative alternative to dance music. So it's not a lost opportunity after all, but a second chance well-taken.