This post ran originally on THUMP UK.
Whatever you think of Drake and/or his music, it can't be doubted that for a certain kind of self-subscribing millennial the soppy, sing-song Canadian softie has boundless appeal. People, it seems, love Drake. Drake is a huge deal. To a generation raised on regurgitated nostalgia and relatable memes, Drake is the closest they've got to a genuine icon. So it naturally follows that when Drake approves of something, or someone—be it butter chicken, Stone Island jackets, or other rappers—his audience follow suit. This, of course, is how celebrity has always worked and how it likely always will.
Just recently, in between binging on halloumi at Nandos and nipping into the Co-Op for washing detergent, oven chips, fennel or whatever it was he dropped by to pick up, Drake posed for an admittedly charming photo with "two very important ladies" in his life: to his right was his mother, Sandi Graham, and to his left was one of the most simultaneously celebrated and overlooked artists in British music.
Helen Folasade Adu was born on 16 January 1959 in Ibadan, Nigeria. The daughter of a Yoruban economics lecturer and an English nurse, Helen would spend much of her childhood on the fringes of the Essex coast—a distinctly unmemorable part of the country, an indistinct but sprawling patch of shingle, sand, and net-curtained caravans. By the tail end 1983, Adu, a fashion graduate, was big enough of a deal to have a thousand people turned away from the doors at Heaven, in London, and to have made a debut American performance at the Danceteria, one of the most legendary clubs in New York nightlife history. Somewhere in the intervening 24 years, Helen had stopped being Helen; Helen had become Sade.
Music, as we're reminded on a relatively recurrent basis, is cyclical. Genres, production techniques, types of hat; all these things take their place in the cultural landscape and find themselves moving from fore to background, in and out of focus as the seasons change. Though this isn't always the most positive thing in the world, and reductive retromania is symptomatic of artistic and social malaise, it does mean the artists who are adored but not quite fawned over, can burble away on the back burner, boiling back into view when the mood strikes them. Sade is one such artist.
Over the course of six studio albums, Sade—and here I'm referring to the collective unit of musicians who record and release under that name, rather than just Adu herself—have hovered in and out of collective consciousness, their eponymous frontwoman a byword for their understated, quiet cool. In fact, Adu herself is so unremittingly cool that's it's not surprising in the slightest that a cornball like Drake—a man who screams desperation in a voice even louder than a sixth former with a Mubi account and Strong Opinions on the future of the Labour party—has aligned himself with her.
And it is that residual, permanent, unfuckwithable sense of cool that makes her such an appealing an enduring figure—a non-ironic, non-naff, non-Barbara Windsor national treasure. She's cool in the way that Alain Delon and geodesic domes are cool. She resides outside of the usual realm of fame, emerging every few years to reclaim a crown of undisputed cool.
The music helps too, of course. The group's signature blend of smokey sophistication (typified by early smash hit singles like the jazz-inflected "Your Love is King" and the housewife's favorite that is "Smooth Operator") Balearic-infused slow jams (like "No Ordinary Love" and "I Couldn't Love You More") and sun-dappled, fucked-out narcotic lovers rock (yep, "Lovers Rock") creates a singular sonic world that oozes with subtle seduction. Listening to the back catalogue, you're left wondering if anything else sounds quite so sleek. Apart from maybe "New Day" by Round Two, or some old Brazilian tropicalia it probably doesn't.
Now the notion of cool is a notoriously slippery one. The word "cool" has been inescapable for nigh on 60 years now, used by pretty much anyone and everyone. Someone, somewhere, has probably earnestly described pebbles or antibacterial kitchen wipes as cool at some point or other. Cool is the thing that we crave, that we are desperate to have bestowed upon us, that we want above all else to be. Sadly for most of us, cool evaporates the second we look for it. The really cool doesn't need to try to be cool, it just is cool, and that's what's so cool about it. Right?
Think about Sade. Sade doesn't need to do anything to radiate a calming sense of cool. Sade is so cool that even Supreme, a brand who'd probably like to think of themselves as the coolest in the world, even if that recent Google trend report on teen behavior suggests that young people prefer web browsers to streetwear, want to use her image to shift very expensive t-shirts, in what might be the coolest collaboration of the 21st century to date, a collaboration which despite being ostentatiously cool remains to be, well, yep, cool.
The UK is a resolutely uncool place; since the invention of youth culture all those decades ago, we have rightly or wrongly looked over to the other side of the Atlantic for inspiration. From the Beats to B-Boys, youths from Kent to Kirkaldy have sought to imitate their American counterparts, hoping that some of that country's wide-eyed idealism and preternatural sense of confidence will rub off on them, if only they buy the right jeans from the right outlet in their local shopping centre. Cool Britannia was a pernicious myth cooked up in the hazy 60s, only to be resurrected in the cokey and hyper-alert 90s—a magazine publisher's wet dream. But think back to those alleged paragons of British cool: Tony Blair, Damon Albarn, and Damien fucking Hirst.
Sade is a shining diamond life in a sea of unwavering mediocrity. Britain is drab, dull, dismal—Britain is lumpy mash, John Stapleton, and fossil hunting in Lyme Regis. Sade stands apart from that. In 2017, she might just be our finest export. And not even Drake—the least cool man in history—can ruin that.