Two-thirds of the way through Playin’ Me, Cooly G’s debut album for Hyperdub, a set of very familiar lyrics pops out of the fray: “Oh no, I see / A spider web, it’s tangled up with me / And I lost my head / The thought of all the stupid things I said.” They’re the words to Coldplay’s “Trouble”, one of the most widely circulated and divisive songs in modern pop history. Why dubstep’s breakout sensation would cover this song that makes some people cry and others retch is the question at the center of this record, and no, I don’t believe it was meant to be ironic. The lyrics are filled with pain and the feeling states that lead to pain — regret, self-doubt, anxiety, and grief. And while Chris Martin soared above the big, big music that swelled with ache, Cooly G took a different approach: she ‘Burial-ized’ it, pairing jacked-up rhythms with a spare, suggestive melody, thereby pushing the loaded lyrics to the front.
Playin’ Me is like that spider web with Cooly G in the middle, trying to figure things out. It’s a shape-shifting record of moods and messages that are never quite as clear as they are on “Trouble”. What brings this album to the level of great art is the skill by which Cooly G interprets this disorientation through the relatively implicit medium of sound. Indeed, it is intoxicating, from portentous beginning to trippy, tumbling end. On the opener, “He Said I Said”, Cooly G plays out an interchange between herself and an elusive “he,” who entices her to come inside his place and relax. The echoing guitar hook sounds just like a beckoning finger. She doesn’t really tell us what happens next, beyond the two of them sitting across the room from each other, but we can easily imagine the scenario leading to many different outcomes that aren’t so obvious at the outset. What we hear on the rest of the album evokes the sticky, webby result of a relationship that begins as mundanely as “he said this, and I said that.”
Almost as if by ambush, “What This World Needs Now” takes over. We are now, perhaps, witnessing the second stage of this enticement, when the approach toward someone becomes a full-blown falling-in. It is a confusing track — seductively, maddeningly so — made no clearer by the title implying that love, sweet love, will make everything all right. The chords that throb atop the slick double-time beat imply not love, but sex — erotic, confounding, destabilizing sex. The following track is dizzy and lightheaded, a piano-laden interlude without a backbone. Its title, “Come Into My Room”, may sound to most like a sweet invitation, but the music seems to tell a different story: in the aftermath of the album’s one-two punch, the protagonist feels too weakened to resist her lover’s advances. It left me with a feeling of enigmatic dread.
The album features a number of brilliant juxtapositions between music and lyrics, the net effect of which is that we never truly know where Cooly G’s mind is (“Trouble” notwithstanding). The vocal refrain of “Sunshine” (“You bring me sunshine”) is at odds with its dub overtones, which evoke a cloudy, restless ambivalence. “Trying” emphasizes two words that speak of struggle — “trying” and “crying” — yet the music undulates with cathartic bliss that brings to mind the elysian soundscapes of the gone-too-soon trip-hop group Povi. Some critics have called Playin’ Me a vocal-centered record, but I think there’s peril in that conclusion because it discounts how the music interacts with the words and provides us with necessary information. Cooly G sings only the words of the title throughout “Playin’ Me”, but when the music’s tone changes from stirring to menacing at the halfway point, it portrays her emotional transformation around being played — from disbelief to anger.
Perhaps those critics aren’t used to hearing so many personal sentiments on a dubstep album, especially from a female in the midst of a very male-dominated genre. I’m not used to hearing them, either. But that’s a huge part of what gives Cooly G such distinction and what proves Playin’ Me triumphant. She did not have to “act like a man” in order to succeed in this arena. Rather, she has brought men and women flocking to her music, eager to hear a female’s perspective that nonetheless speaks to universal issues in interpersonal relationships. Playin’ Me is incredibly honest, refreshingly free of competitive posturing, and full of new-era dubstep richness. Perhaps Cooly G believes she has done her lover wrong, but she has undoubtedly done right by fans of complex, meaningful electronic music and given 2012 a mid-year gem.