The British singer-songwriter returns with a wide range of styles to conquer our imaginations. The result? A partial victory.
"I got somethin' good for ya, baby," Estelle declares on a rompin', house-style "Somethin' Good/Devotion (Passion Interlude)". It's the third track on her 2015 outing True Romance, and it's sporting more than just a cumbersome title. It's so reminiscent of one Cecelia "CeCe" Peniston, especially her hit single "Finally" -- right down to the keyboard and horn stabs -- that it's hard to believe True Romance didn't somehow escape from a vault of unreleased albums from the early 1990s.
The question isn't whether Estelle was influenced by Peniston and early-'90s club jams. What we really want to know is what all this is about: what is this mysterious "somethin' good" that she's got? Is it, as the lyrics suggest, our protagonist's nearly unattainable love? "Now the thing / 'Bout my love," she croons, "There's a price you gotta pay". Maybe that's it. And, since we're busy pondering, we might as well take a glance at the title to consider what exactly a "true romance" might be. The album's lineup consists of songs that discuss everything you'd expect: supportive relationships (album opener "Time After Time", "She Will Love"), sensual affairs ("Time Share (Suite 509)"), self-love and self-respect ("Conqueror"), and relationship conflicts ("Fight For It").
Unfortunately, the truth is that our listening experience doesn't illuminate the answers, which, on the positive side, adds an element of mystery and perhaps excitement while, on the negative side, delivers an album with somewhat vague intentions and underdeveloped execution. Don't get it twisted, though -- you don't have to know what "it" is to know our darling chanteuse really does have "somethin' good" for us.
And it, if we're talking about True Romance, really is good. You hear that goodness in the details that readily avail themselves via headphones: the technology used to manipulate vocals, the sped-up sample in the delightful whimsy of "Silly Girls", the beatboxing and whistling in "Fight For It", the fabulously warm production that envelopes album closer "All That Matters". So much of it is good. It's just not great.
One of the album's strongest ideas is its interplay of moods and textures, as the compositions mix slow tempos with faster ones while merging the solemn with the upbeat. You find this juxtaposition employed to excellent effect on "Make Her Say (Beat It Up)", where the tempo slows during the verses but becomes steely and fleet of foot in between them. That track, however, might be something more along the lines of a Madonna album than the Peniston-like sound of "Somethin' Good". So, you see, True Romance's variation of tempo supports its diversity of styles. Estelle might have gone "CeCe" on "Somethin' Good" and she gives us a little Madge on "Make Her Say (Beat It Up)", but she's also got a little Amel Larrieux to show us in "All That Matters". "Silly Girls" has that same young Michael Jackson vibe that we heard in Alicia Keys's "You Don't Know My Name" from 2003.
None of this is meant to say the record is derivative. After all, Estelle is gifted in her ability to adapt, her voice every bit as much of an instrument as any horn, synth, or bass. The point is that she's so malleable -- with a range that includes club tracks, the self-affirming balladry of "Conqueror", and the smooth, light reggae of "She Will Love" -- the whole thing begins to teeter and meander, almost drowning out the singer we actually wanted know better. Estelle is so good at sounding like great entertainers, it's quite easy to forget that she's pretty great herself.
True Romance shows great promise but doesn't fully deliver. "Time After Time" echoes the sentiments of Cyndi Lauper's 1984 tune of the same name, without completely copying it, and adds a danceable track. It's catchy, if a tad repetitive. Unfortunately, it doesn't go far enough beyond its sound in distinguishing its message. Contrast that with the ironically titled "The Same", where a completely acoustic approach with the music could have made the song transcendent rather than familiar.
"Conqueror" is another example. Its homage to self-reliance is well taken -- coming from the same lyrical lineage as George Benson's (and later Whitney Houston's) "The Greatest Love of All", Mariah Carey's "Hero", and even "Survivor" by Destiny's Child -- but it fails to surpass the usual fare. The songwriting is a bit worn, with lines such as "I'd rather stand tall / Than live on my knees", but it's equally confident and forthright, and you have to admire its ability to slog through the saccharine. (In the interest of full disclosure, I can't be so judgmental about the track since, after all, I get teary when I hear Mariah Carey's "Hero"!). But then, have a listen to the version of "Conqueror" on the Season One soundtrack of Fox's monster television melodrama Empire. There, Estelle and Jussie Smollett (he plays "Jamal Lyon" on Empire) transform Estelle's solo act into a duet, with Smollett's gentle swoon joining Estelle's engaging vocal waltz.
Transforming the song into a duet offers a compelling vocal contrast, if not an altogether better composition, and it would have been quite a coup for Estelle to have included this version on True Romance. Then again, aside from a male spoken word sequence at the end of "Time Share (Suite 509)", Estelle seems determined to make True Romance a solo affair and, presumably, a personal statement. Part of Empire's appeal, on the other hand, has got to be its staggeringly smart placement of music within its narrative framework.
For instance, Smollett and Bryshere Gray, a.k.a. "Yazz the Greatest" (playing Empire's "Hakeem Lyon"), joined forces for "Money for Nothing", which reworks the 1985 hit of the same name by Dire Straits. Alongside its catchy and clever execution, the song suggests (on purpose, I hope) that the characters flipped the original song's more controversial lyrical content for their own agenda ("See the little f*ggot with the earring and the makeup"). In Smollett and Yazz's version, there are lines such as, "We are the people who turn illegal to legal", indicating this sort of deliberate social alchemy.
In doing so, the song also allows the show to further develop the character of Jamal and his sense of self and identity in a plot that emphasizes his own father's disapproval of his sexual orientation. As a twisted additional layer of meaning, it's worth noting that the Dire Straits original was written from the first-person perspective of an average Joe scratching his head at the MTV generation's new cult of money and celeb status. Meanwhile, in the Empire track's updated version, the artists are embracing that cult and that status ("Commas and zeros, that's the way we do it / We make it work in this economy").
The relevance of this to Estelle is that, first, she appeared on Empire, not as herself, but as a potential centerpiece for the show's fictional premier record label. It was a solid appearance that, regardless of the song being a solo or a duet, helps to contextualize the music. Second, and more importantly, all of this reminds us that True Romance might have been enhanced by some sort of narrative thread, if only in the form of more deliberate sequencing, so that Estelle's potluck of styles and moods would find themselves in an easier fit. As it stands, the album shows us our heroine at her most malleable and, while it's an enjoyable listen, there's nothing as joyfully buoyant as Estelle's 2005 Kanye West-assisted single "American Boy".